This piece is taken from issue 36 of our journal, Inside Track.
It is summer, at some point around 1987. I and my mum and dad are on holiday in Skegness. We sit on the beach, my dad wheezing slightly from the effort of blowing up my new inflatable dinghy, a bargain purchase. We look nervously out to sea.
I am keen to use the dinghy, because I am a small boy. My dad is keen because the dinghy only counts as a bargain if we actually use it. However, neither of us is sure if we really want to go through with it. The sea looks – well – disgusting. Things are clearly floating in it. It is discoloured and dirty. Most of the other holidaymakers are steering clear, preferring the candy floss and amusement rides behind us. But my dad is the grown-up here, and the decision is made. He wades in. I am on board. This may be the most vivid of my early memories: keeping my hands and feet clamped together in the absolute centre of the dinghy to make sure the water can’t touch me. My dad has chosen what looks like the safest stretch of sea, but I’m convinced that everything repulsive I could ever imagine is floating just by the boat. We last about five minutes before my mum makes us come out again.
The sea at Skegness was so dirty because the British government hadn’t wanted to clean it. It hadn’t bothered to force the water utility or the local council to improve its sewerage systems and stop them polluting the bathing waters on the coast. But, since 1976, someone else had been telling them they should. That was the year the European Community passed the Bathing Water Directive, requiring member states to designate bathing waters and ensure they were sanitary enough for public use.
Although it was an iconic seaside resort, boasting the first ever Butlin’s camp, and despite its shore being lined with sellers of armbands and rubber rings, the government of the day had decided that Skegness was not, in fact, used for bathing. Neither, according to them, were the beaches of Southport, Blackpool or Brighton. The average member state designated around 285 sites following the directive. But, although we were an island surrounded by water, the UK managed to find only 27 bathing waters to designate.
What explains the UK’s sustained reluctance to act, over a period during which both Labour and Conservative governments were in power? Simply that, as is so often the case, environmental issues came too far down the list compared to the pressing and urgent needs of day-to-day government. Only a political body at a higher level, constructed to act on more long term issues, could deal with the problem.
Around the time I was clinging tight to my dinghy, the Commission had begun formal proceedings against the UK’s non-designation of what were clearly bathing waters. In 1987, to avoid legal action from Brussels, the UK designated 362 further sites. 45 percent of which failed to meet the standards of the Bathing Water Directive.
This led to further legal action from Europe, with the result that, in 1989 and 1990, just under £3 billion was invested in improving our sewage outlets. But, even then, Europe kept up the pressure and, in 1993, won a legal battle that forced the UK to ensure it kept its beaches healthy for people to use.
Eventually, Britain accepted the case. Not having poo, sanitary products and condoms floating in the sea off our favourite beaches was an altogether good thing. The political will to clean up the UK’s beaches and waters grew. By 2014 there were 632 designated bathing waters, and 98.9 per cent met the EU’s Directive (which had itself been improved in 2006). The last Bathing Water Profile for Skegness from the Environment Agency gave it an ‘excellent’ rating.
That’s the state of the UK’s beaches today. It’s what I witnessed last summer as I ran across a perfect, honey-coloured beach into blue water on the west coast of Wales, my own daughter laughing as a wave knocked her down, with my dad strutting into the water behind us. None of us were afraid of what lay in wait.
It’s unlikely that leaving the EU would see us return to the dark days of my dinghy experience; the reasons why the government should be legally obliged to keep beaches fit for bathing are now just too obvious to everyone. But we would never have known how much better things could be, back in 1987, if we hadn’t been part of a political process with the time, scale, scope and ambition to act on it.
It continues today. From tackling cross boundary waste and resource issues to air pollution, there are clear benefits to being involved in a process at the continental, rather than national level; benefits which our own, everyday political processes will never prioritise. The European Union works for the environment because it requires us to take a view of Britain’s interests.
Image: Alan Burnett via Flickr, CC2.0