English rivers are in a poor state and are certainly not fit to swim in. That’s why I’m campaigning for my local river, the River Wharfe, to gain bathing water status and I am calling on my fellow Conservative councillors across the country to do the same. It is the only way we can guarantee our rivers will be monitored and a clear mechanism to do our bit to ensure their recovery.
Rivers are the ‘arteries of nature’, performing countless critical functions that our entire ecosystem depends on. The River Wharfe is, and has for generations been, the focal point of Wetherby. Having once provided power to industry, the river still plays a vital role in sustaining our livelihoods. But it is not just for people that rivers exist. They attract wildlife, creating habitats for all manner of species.
I am saddened then, that only 14 per cent of our rivers are in a good ecological status, with the Environmental Audit Committee describing them as a ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic.
The River Wharfe is no exception. Collingham Beck, a local bathing spot, recorded a staggering 109.13 days of sewage being discharged there in 2020 alone. Local videographer, Mark Barrow, has filmed the underwater conditions in the Wharfe to expose the reality of uncontrolled discharging by the water companies. The videos show why the water industry regulator, Ofwat, is right to have ‘serious concerns’ over the way in which Yorkshire Water, one of the top five biggest polluters, has been operating.
In my Wetherby Ward, located in the north east of Leeds City Council, we recognise how important the River Wharfe is to our local environment, which is why we have all rallied together to take action to clean up our river. Local citizen scientists have headed to the river to take water samples in a co-ordinated, scientifically-controlled experiment to develop a snapshot of our river’s quality.
For those less keen on wading in the polluted waters, we have also held a summit of stakeholders at Civic Hall in Leeds to determine what more can be done. Action, we learned, can be taken across the region through Leeds City Council and its immediate partners, as well as through organisations like Yorkshire Water, the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust, and the Ilkley Clean Rivers Group.
Via our Community, Environment and Housing Scrutiny Board, our local council can lead the way by leveraging local planning decisions. A large new housing development is planned for Wetherby and with it a chance to rethink the way in which sewage discharge is managed. It is my strong view, therefore, that developer contributions should support upgrades to the sewage infrastructure and that sustainable urban drainage systems should be mandatory in all new residential developments.
Local councils and councillors are also the lynchpin for any successful application for a stretch of a local river to achieve ‘bathing water status’. It is for this reason that the Conservative Environment Network has created a handy toolkit for councillors, like myself, to lead on local bathing water applications.
It is clear to us (no pun intended) that the first step in improving water quality is to apply for, and be granted, bathing water status. This is the only measure that will compel the Environment Agency to regularly monitor the water quality of the river. We understand improvements will not happen overnight, but unless the EA are actively monitoring the situation, then improvements might never happen. This additional monitoring is essential to holding polluters to account.
But the designation itself will not guarantee improvements in water quality. This has been borne out in the case of Ilkley, the only location along an English river to achieve Bathing Water Status. Problems with the water’s quality have seen the bathing water make headlines, ever since its designation in 2020, most recently with children who bathe in the water falling ill. Clarity around what bathing water status actually means, and its limitations, is therefore as important as actually achieving the status.
But individual, local, and regional action can only go so far in the UK. Major changes are needed in national policy. The introduction of an overall water quality target, to replace the legacy EU target for 2027 which we will not achieve, would be a solid start.
The upswell of more bathing water applications across the country must flow alongside further progress in national policy, which sees investment in infrastructure, support for local councils wanting to make bold planning reforms, all underpinned by an ambitious overarching target on water quality. Our ‘arteries of nature’ are in desperate need of unblocking so that shoals of fish and groups of children can swim safely in the River Wharfe, bringing with them a whole ecosystem worth of recovery. Who knows, one day, we may even see the beaver return?
First published by ConservativeHome. Councillor Linda Richards is the Conservative Environment Network’s River Ambassador.