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Kitty Thompson: Don’t flush the Great British seaside down the toilet

Kitty Thompson (Nature Programme Manager at CEN)

Nothing says English summertime like a trip to the seaside. From whimsical beach huts to fish ‘n’ chips, our coastlines are a quintessential part of our cultural identity. But if we are not careful, we risk quite literally flushing this bright and colourful history down the toilet.

This pilgrimage to the sea has been a constant in British life for hundreds of years. Having been the health pursuit of the upper classes in the 1700s, over time, the seaside transformed into the location of a mass exodus each summer for workers from industrial centres to relax in.

Some were ready to declare the seaside dead when competition by cheap package holidays and the rise of budget airlines emerged during the 1990s. But our towns persisted with coastal tourism in England, receiving 169 million day visits and 21 million overnight visits annually before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though our seaside towns inevitably took a hit from lockdown, they came into their own due to international travel restrictions. The rise of the “staycation” gives these areas a new lease of life.

As many people begin to consider the environmental implications of their travel habits, this trend toward our domestic travel destinations will likely remain in some shape or form for years to come. With temperatures continuing to reach record highs, the desire for a day by the water is only likely to grow in appeal.

This influx of new and old tourists presents an economic opportunity we must seize. I should know. Originally hailing from Skegness, I have spent many a summer holiday manning a doughnut machine and serving Mr Whippy ice creams to the masses of hungry visitors in the town.

But this opportunity for a reinvigorated seaside economy could soon be spoiled. Having survived the rise of package holidays, a pandemic and so much more, the future of our seaside tourist industry is under threat yet again.

This summer, reports have surfaced of tourists in Kent falling ill following a dip in the sea. The cause was that the sea, just hours prior, had been the site of a sewage discharge. In reality sewage discharges at the height of the summer season are now far from anomalies.

If our seas continue to make people ill, it will be a nightmare for the rest of England’s coastal resorts, for whom the water serves as the vital lifeblood of tourism.

Interestingly, as attention has turned to the poor ecological health of England’s rivers, our coastal bathing waters have been cited as success stories to be replicated inland. But last year, it was reported that one in six days of the official bathing season was deemed ‘unswimmable’ due to these sewage discharges into the sea, including official Blue Flag beaches.

Vast swathes of the English coastline are currently approved as bathing water sites. This is supposed to imply a duty of care from all stakeholders to protect the water and improve its quality. And yet, from Blackpool to Bognor Regis, sewage continues to be discharged into the seas of our most famous and favourite resorts.

Despite increased public awareness of this issue and growing calls for change, according to the latest Environmental Performance Assessment, pollution by the water industry has only gotten worse. How can we, in good conscience, beckon more people to our beaches with this public and ecological health threat looming large?

Coastal towns across England are more likely to be ranked as “higher deprivation towns” than their non-coastal counterparts. If instilling a sense of community pride is to form a vital part of the levelling up, and regeneration agenda, the fortunes of these towns can only change once the government also begins to take pride in them.

To do so, the government must start by ensuring that the natural resources upon which these places depend, namely the sea and its surrounding beaches, are flourishing, rather than being flooded with sewage.

Fortunately, unlike many of the threats that have gone before it, this is a problem that the government can resolve.

The government has already updated guidance to the water regulator, Ofwat, to prioritise tackling storm overflows. This should unlock more water company investment in treatment infrastructure to increase capacity and trigger more investment in nature-based solutions like tree planting to reduce surface runoff.

But, rightly so, people want more, and the first step should be to punish those who pollute our seas. The Environment Agency is calling for criminal proceedings against executives and board members that oversee persistent and illegal sewage dumping. In addition, the government should introduce unlimited fines for water companies which breach their permits, removing the current cap.

But, these solutions will only go so far. We must upgrade our Victorian infrastructure. This is the only long-term solution to cope with the pressure created by a growing population and more extreme weather events.

Defra’s plan to tackle storm overflows has been consulted on and must be published by 1 September. Under the plan, by 2040, 40% of all discharges will have been eliminated, rising to 80% by 2050. Water companies will not be able to discharge from a storm overflow by 2050 unless they demonstrate it won’t harm the local environment.

These new policies must work in practice, not just in theory. For the sake of the seaside, its local economy, the communities that call these places home, and the visitors that flock there each summer, the new government should be as ambitious as possible with its plans to tackle sewage.


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