Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon said:
“We all experienced an extremely wet end to 2023, and it seems to be continuing into 2024. It is worth noting that when it rains a lot, the combined storm overflows discharge, as that is what they are designed to do.
“Over the Christmas recess I was inundated with concerned constituents and campaign groups claiming raw sewage was being released onto our beautiful beaches every time a “sewage alert” was issued. The “sewage alert” advises that the overflow has gone – which are over 95% rainwater but contain many other pollutants due to the run off that enters into our water pipes after periods of significant rain as well as sharing the pipes sewage flows through. They are not nice or welcome, but they are not raw sewage as many claim.
“Disappointingly, the water is not tested between September and May, which with the increase in all year round swimming and surfing along our coastline, in my mind, makes no sense. Information is being constantly perpetuated about the water quality along our coast without any data. I have therefore submitted a 10 Minute Rule Bill in Westminster for all year round testing of our bathing waters.
“I was particularly concerned this Christmas as there were two “National Incident Reporting Services (NIRS) reports” at Croyde due to a fault in the sewage treatment works. This resulted in intermittent spills of actual raw sewage into the environment. This occurred on 19th December and again on 29th December. Every procedure was followed correctly and South West Water took rapid steps to rectify the problem – however other than the Environment Agency updating their Swimfo website, as they are the gold standard for information on whether it is safe to go in the water or not – no one else contacted me about these incidents. These warranted proper “sewage alerts” in my mind, being the only occasion over Christmas that there was actual raw sewage was being pumped out to sea – but none were issued by any campaign groups.
“Since returning to Westminster, I have met with the Water Minister, Robbie Moore MP and Chief Executive of South West Water, Susan Davy to better understand what has gone on. I have also flagged my concerns that the lack of accurate data about what is happening in the water outside of the “Bathing Water Season” (May to September) is now causing untold damage to our tourism businesses, despite our beaches being amongst the cleanest in the world. I appreciate that that many dispute this fact, but it is not about whether the water is crystal clear, but about the bacterial load in the water and how quickly the tide can disperse, and the salt water naturally clean any bacteria. As many people may know, our coast has the second highest tidal range in the world, and this helps keep our beaches clean.
“I have been working with officials and the Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to ascertain the correct guidance for sporting activities in the sea. At present there is no guidance for sea swimming – that used along the coast at Christmas is actually for freshwater or estuary swimming – and tidal saltwater naturally cleans pollutants in a very different manner to a freshwater stream.
“I am very proud to be MP for the only world surf reserve in the UK, and the only cold water surf reserve in the world. Its reputation for great waves, alongside clean beaches was hard fought, and I will continue to promote it and remain disappointed that others in our community continue to perpetuate incorrect information about our beaches.
“The fine surfing beaches of Woolacombe, Putsborough, Saunton Sands and Lynmouth have had excellent bathing water status every year since 2016. Croyde returned to excellent in 2022 after a two year stint at good, following extensive investment at the sewage treatment works. The storm overflows have run after storms throughout this six year period.
“We know there are challenges at Combe Martin, but the community have worked tirelessly with innovative schemes to improve their water quality and retain their good status. The community have helped with the installation of smart water butts and over 40,000 trees have been planted to retain water further up the catchment. Whilst it suits a political narrative to blame government and water companies for water pollution, it is important to note the huge complexity of water quality, and it was good to see Combe Martin residents explain this complexity on a recent social media post about run off in the village.
“Hele Bay has had their bathing water downgraded this year from good to sufficient. The Environment Agency analysis is that this is primarily due to pollution from agricultural sources. This is following ongoing investigations and dye traces through the water course. South West Water (SWW) and the Environment Agency (EA) will continue to work to try and find solutions to improve water quality on this beach, and I look forward to meeting swimmers at the beach in the coming weeks with SWW and the EA in attendance to explain what is happening to improve water quality and give confidence to the swimmers about water quality data.
“Yes, we all want the overflows to run less frequently, but the alternative is when it rains a lot, our drains will back up and cause flooding. That is why SWW are increasing storage capacity as well as investing in upstream thinking, holding the water upstream and slowing the flow to the treatment plants. We only know about the overflows because this government have legislated to ensure that they are monitored, going from 6% in 2010 to 100% in 2023. This does not mean there are more overflows, or they are running more frequently – we just know when they are running. It has rained in North Devon for generations; the overflows ran throughout; and our water quality has consistently improved over the years and retained its excellent status on our surf beaches.
“I am deeply concerned that incorrect information is being perpetuated by campaign groups and then manipulated, often for party political reasons, as this is causing unnecessary concern to visitors and damaging our tourism economy. We should be encouraging people to come and utilise what are some of the cleanest beaches anywhere – but without all year round testing, we can never be sure how clean the water is when we want to surf or swim, outside of the traditional summer season.”
For more information please contact: Selaine Saxby, firstname.lastname@example.org 01271 327990.
NOTES TO EDITORS
Photo with Minister for Water and Rural Growth, Robbie Moore 16th January 2024
Photo with Susan Davy Chief Executive Officer of South West Water 22nd January 2024
Environment Agency, Swimfo: https://environment.data.gov.uk/bwq/profiles/