For many people, 31st October was a day of spooky fun: apple bobbing, free sweets and scary costumes. But, for some people, Halloween 2022 was spent composing a very long and data-heavy email to Defra.
One such person is Linda Richards, a Leeds City Councillor representing the Wetherby Ward and also CEN’s Rivers Ambassador.
The email she sent to Defra was the culmination of a summer’s worth of work (or rather, a whole bathing season’s worth!). Linda led the charge for not one, not two, but three sites to apply for bathing water status.
In an interview for the CEN Blog, she reveals how she assembled her team, what the process involves, and what this means to her as a conservative environmentalist.
Situated on the banks of the River Wharfe, Wetherby marks the centre of the ‘Yorkshire triangle’ of Leeds, York and Harrogate. Once providing power to industry, the river now provides a place for recreation and relaxation for all manner of bathers.
Linda describes Wetherby as “a destination town for local visitors from the surrounding cities who flock there to take advantage of the natural assets afforded by the Wharfe”. It has been this way for longer than Linda can remember.
One stretch of the Wharfe forms a sort-of riverside beach during the drier summers. The shallow waters, she says, also make it “a perfect paddling point for families with young children wanting to splash about”.
Young people gather on this beach, on a Sunday in particular, to bathe in the shallow water whilst listening to the live music playing at the refurbished bandstand nearby.
A location further downstream is deeper, bringing with it the more hardened swimmers who are looking to exercise and practice water sports.
The third location that caught Linda’s eye was in the neighbouring village of Boston Spa, which provides another popular location for swimming and paddling.
With her three bathing water sites chosen, the next step was to get her team together. The trick to this, Linda said, was “getting the right people on side”: those that know their surrounding area well and with skill sets to complement her own.
With the support of local parish councillors and from the increasingly active ‘climate emergency group’ within Wetherby Town Council, she reached out to an active voice within the Boston Spa community green group and someone proficient in social media and physical marketing. Altogether they became known as the ‘Wetherby and Villages Clean Rivers Group’.
With her team assembled, you could be forgiven for assuming the next natural step is to get the community on board. But therein lies the “peculiarity” of applying for bathing water status, as Linda describes it. The title of ‘bathing water status’, she says, is not a “grant it and they shall come” situation, but rather the exact opposite. This is a proof of demand exercise.
A key component of the application is to stand at your chosen site and literally count the number of bathers there. You must do this for at least twenty days throughout the bathing season (15th May to 30th September), ensuring that half of all survey days are during the school holiday period.
This is exactly what Linda and her team did. Standing at the bank of the river, many tally charts were drawn. Speaking to local people and businesses as they went, Linda and her team collected the data necessary to prove that people were already bathing along the Wharfe in the spots she had chosen.
Linda points out that ‘if people are already bathing, you may ask yourself what the point of achieving Defra’s status is exactly’. She explained that with the issue of sewage and water pollution having risen to the top of the environmental agenda, monitoring water quality is essential for public health.
Bathing waters are the only bodies of water where bacteria levels are consistently monitored and the data about the water quality published. This information helps swimmers to avoid pollution and make informed choices about where and when to swim. Linda says that “keeping local residents safe whilst swimming” was the driving force behind her campaign.
If an application is successful, the Environment Agency must then also work with stakeholders to improve the quality of the bathing water.
Linda’s stakeholder, she hopes, will be slightly more receptive than most. This is because of the two riverine bathing waters to currently hold the status in England, the first is located in the nearby town of Ilkley. Indeed, the Ilkley Clean River Group has proved to be a source of vital support, knowledge and expertise for Linda.
Representatives from the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water were both engaged in Linda's campaign. If any of her three applications are successful, these two organisations will be essential for helping to improve the health of the River Wharfe.
But before that stage could even be considered, Linda had to complete another key element of the application: running a local consultation with groups that may be affected by the designation, such as the bathers and nearby businesses.
Unsurprisingly, the bathers were excited about the idea that the water they were swimming in could be improved. The same applied too for local businesses, who are benefiting from the accompanying trade, and the local councillors, many of whom were already part of her team.
Although there were inevitably some people who made their scepticism known, Linda regarded the people of Wetherby as being “overwhelmingly happy with the prospect of their local swimming spots potentially achieving the designation”.
With the consultation complete and the tally charts counted, all that remained to be seen was for the application to officially be sent to Defra. Which is exactly what she did at the end of October.
With her part of the process done and dusted, Linda reflected back on the past few months. When asked about her personal motivation for the campaign, Linda attributes it to being a conservative environmentalist. Driving real environmental change, she says, is “not just pointing out a problem but also working to solve it”.
Linda was delighted, therefore, when I informed her of the over 40 MPs and peers who recently signed CEN’s water manifesto, which includes a call for the government to designate at least 22 new inland bathing sites across England every five years.
With her campaign having drawn to a close for now, Linda’s attention turns to the local elections that will be taking place in May 2023. She is excited to get back out into the community to talk to residents about their environmental concerns and continue to show how their Conservative elected representatives are leading on the environment locally.
For those looking to replicate Linda’s campaign in 2023, here are her top tips:
She reiterated the need for a strong team with complementary skill sets and diversity of thoughts and interests.
Invest in a digital data collection software, such as Survey Monkey, to make life simpler and to help reach different audiences.
Plan your time wisely. Twenty days may not seem like a lot, but striking while the iron is hot (and by that I mean during summer and bank holidays) will require some prior planning.
For councillors and activists looking to run a local bathing water campaign in 2023, click here to read CEN’s bathing water toolkit.
Views expressed in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of the Conservative Environment Network. If you are a CEN supporter, councillor, or parliamentarian and would like to write for the CEN blog, please email your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.