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MSP Briefing

Protecting Bathing Water Quality


On Thursday 4 December the Parliament will debate an Executive motion on protecting bathing water quality. This briefing covers this issue and related matters that may be raised during the debate.

Bathing Water Quality

The quality of Scotland's bathing water is important not only for the public health of residents who use local beaches, but also for the nation's credibility as a tourist destination. It is self evident that swimming in sewage or animal waste is a less than attractive prospect for tourists. The health consequences can involve stomach complaints, infections or more serious conditions.

Whilst SEPA is responsible for monitoring our beaches the main causes of pollution are sewage and agricultural residues. In response to a number of EU Directives major efforts have been made to clean up Scotland's beaches. The Executive can rightly claim credit for significant progress, with the 2003 results the best since monitoring began. Ayrshire has been a particular success given the previous negative publicity. However, we should not be complacent. Three beaches still failed the safety limits and five other popular beaches would have failed if they had been officially designated. The summer of 2003 was also relatively dry, which minimises the problems of land run-off and revisions to the EU Bathing Water Directive is likely to raise the standards.


Any debate on water issues at present is likely to inspire an outbreak of Scotland's favourite political pastime - bashing Scottish Water. In this context it is important to emphasise that sewage is only part of the problem. Agricultural residues are in many ways a more difficult problem to address.

Sewage treatment is being addressed through a substantial investment programme. Not as substantial as is required to address all the bathing water quality issues as quickly as everyone would wish. That is because a programme of the size needed would have involved even higher water charges and it is doubtful that the industry, public or private, has the capacity to deliver a larger programme.

Water Charges

Bathing water quality is a good example of the need for investment in Scotland's water and sewage infrastructure. However, this investment has to be paid for. Either through water charges or by diverting resources from other public services. Suggestions from the Water Industry Commissioner (WIC) that this could be reduced through further efficiency savings are a best misleading. His figures are based on inadequate data and erroneous comparisons with England. A country that has a very different environment and water structure, not to mention the benefits of years of additional expenditure. Even so they are now also facing substantial increases in water charges to meet the needs of their different investment cycle.


Good progress has been made on bathing water quality although there are no grounds for complacency. Like so much of the change required in the water industry, the structures and investment need much more time to have an impact.

For further information visit the water pages of our website www.unison-scotland.org.uk

Or contact Dave Watson, Scottish Organiser d.watson@unison.co.uk

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Further Information

For further information visit the water pages of our website www.unison-scotland.org.uk

Or contact Dave Watson, Scottish Organiser d.watson@unison.co.uk