4 AUGUST 1990, Page 5


These are discoveries to which Britain's own democratic system — stimulated by pressure groups and media reports, not to mention the infected throats and stomach Upsets of bathers — has reacted. The Commons environment select committee which reported on beach pollution has made recommendations, backed by the Government, that the practice of dumping raw sewage at sea should be stopped as soon as possible, and that meanwhile notices should be posted — this should be made mandatory — at beaches, giving details of hazards so that bathers can make up their own minds. Whether or not bathers will be given the opportunity to exercise their discretion in the rest of the EEC is a matter of doubt, though Britain has asked Signor Carlo Ripa Di Meana, the EEC's Environment Commissioner, to request notices from the rest. But what of those countries whose beaches are not regularly swept by the Atlantic, but merely stirred a little by the tideless Mediterra- nean? There is some evidence that Britain has been given an unfair reputation as the dirty man of Europe.

The United Nations Mediterranean Ac- tion Plan estimates than one in five beaches around the sea is unsafe: Last year a blanket of yellow slime appeared on the Adriatic coast of Italy, which claims a 10 Per cent failure rate by EEC standards, though the Kronos 1991 ecology group found Italy's sea and beaches the most Polluted in Europe. In Spain four in ten beaches are contaminated. The govern- ment of Greece fails to monitor most of its polluted coastline. Few British holiday- makers who have looked hard at the water on their Mediterranean excursions will be surprised by any of this.

But none of it is an excuse for com- placency. Britain's own standards should be much higher, and its tests more rigor- ous. Its record is not good. There are several reasons why we have been slow to improve our bathing waters. Until green issues became fashionable there were few votes in better sewage works, which have long been generally known to need major investment. That has now altered, in the light of increasing public concern. The other reason is fundamental, and should be put right: local authorities have not had, and still do not have, a statutory role in testing and enforcing clean bathing waters.

At present the National Rivers Author- ity, a non-elected body, exercises these powers and has the duty of bringing recalcitrant water authorities to heel. It is a role which would be far better exercised in seaside towns by those who represent the poll tax payers. They are the ones whose children are at risk from illness, whose hotel rooms and restaurants and taxis will

be left empty, if the waters are not clean. Some councils do, of their own in-

itiative,already test their bathing waters.

They say privately that their tests are more rigorous and frequent than those of the National Rivers Authority. But at present the only course for councils at seaside resorts is to make private representations or to publicise the level of pollution which the local water authority is producing — publicity which may reduce the trade of their own poll tax payers.

It is right that we should be taking urgent action to clean up our substandard beaches — the EEC bathing water directive will be complied with over the next five years — but they are, after all, our dirty beaches,

and we should not have to be bossed about. Nanny Brussels gets too involved in the minutiae, such as the outfall from our lavatories. The decisions should be taken, as directly as possible, by those most concerned. A flexible response to local conditions, not more Ettro-bureaucracy, is what is wanted.