Select Committee on European Scrutiny Eighth Report


COM(00) 860

Commission Communication: Developing a new bathing water policy.

Legal base:
Document originated: 21 December 2000
Forwarded to the Council: 22 December 2000
Deposited in Parliament: 24 January 2001
Department: Environment, Transport and the Regions
Basis of consideration: EM of 14 February 2001
Previous Committee Report: None; but see (15300) 6177/94: HC 48-xx (1993-94), paragraph 7 (25 May 1994), HC 48-xxiv (1993-94), paragraph 2 (6 July 1994) and HC 70-xiii (1994-95), paragraph 1 (19 April 1995)
To be discussed in Council: No date set
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Cleared


  24.1  The main Community measure governing bathing water quality is Council Directive 76/160/EEC.[50] This defines "bathing water", and sets various physical, chemical and microbiological parameters within which Member States are required to set standards for particular bathing areas, and which they were required to meet within 10 years. The Directive also lays down sampling requirements, and the levels of contamination which must not be exceeded if the water in those samples is to be regarded as conforming with the Directive.

  24.2  In 1994, the Commission put forward a proposal[51] to amend the Directive by providing for the more regular sampling of a more clearly focussed set of parameters, and by clarifying the obligations of Member States - including prohibition of bathing — when bathing water fails to conform to the required standards. However, this was widely seen within the Council of Ministers — including the UK — as imposing significant additional costs without adequate justification on safety grounds, and there were also concerns on grounds of both subsidiarity and practicality. Similar criticisms were made of an amended proposal[52] which the Commission put forward towards the end of 1997.

  24.3  In the meantime, the Community had by then embarked on a number of other measures dealing with water quality. The most significant of these is the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC),[53] which extends protection to all waters, encourages integrated river basin management, and sets limits to emissions and discharges, in conjunction with other such measures as the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC)[54] and the Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC).[55] This in turn has led the Commission to review its approach to bathing water quality, and it has now outlined its current thinking in the present Communication, which it sees as setting in train a process of consultation which will lead to it putting forward in June or July of this year a proposal for a new directive.

The current document

  24.4  The Commission says that the 1976 Directive has created "unprecedented" public awareness about an important environmental and health issue, and encouraged Member States to tackle waste water discharges to the aquatic environment, even prior to the development of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. It adds that its annual reports on the implementation of the Directive show a "constant and significant" improvement in the water quality of bathing areas, at least as regards coastal areas (though it adds that the improvement of inland, fresh bathing water quality, which is influenced by diffuse sources of pollution, has proved much more difficult). It also points out that the rate of improvement has declined in recent years, but it suggests that, by new measures building on the experience of existing legislation, further improvements can be achieved. In particular, it highlights the main scientific criticisms of the present Directive, namely that some of its parameters are outdated (and others no longer relevant), that monitoring is carried out for compliance checking rather than in order to gain better understanding, that, because of the failure to specify methods of analysis, results from different laboratories are not fully comparable, and that the time needed for microbiological analysis means that people are often exposed to pollution before it is possible to react to a non-compliant sample.

  24.5  The Commission therefore advocates the need (a) for ambitious and legally binding water quality standards, (b) for bathing water quality management to extend beyond monitoring in the bathing area itself, and into tackling pollution sources (in particular waste water discharges and agricultural run-off) in terms of land use and upstream emissions, and (c) for the provision of good quality information in "near-real" time, so as to enable the public to make informed choices about if, and where, to bathe.

  24.6  It also outlines its thinking on a number of specific issues. These include:

    —  the clear and unambiguous definition of "bathing" and "bathing area", coupled with a mechanism for removing an area's bathing water status, where this is justified;

    —  the placing of greater emphasis on suitable and prompt management actions (such as beach closure) whenever quality standards are breached, coupled with long-term action for "structural" non-compliance;

    —  the need to move beyond existing sampling procedures and analysis, and to develop a continuous and more flexible "beach profile", identifying all potential sources of pollution and looking, not just at particular results, but at quality trends for individual bathing areas over a three to five year period;

    —  the adoption of health standards,[56] linked to levels of faecal contamination, and based both on draft World Health Organisation guidelines on intestinal enterococci, and on levels of E. coli: these measures would be complemented by indicators showing divergences from normal levels of acidity in fresh waters and of salinity in coastal waters;

    —  when water quality is bad or deteriorates, an obligation within a limited time-frame to take remedial action, such as the improvement of waste water collection and treatment;

    —  the development wherever possible of modelling techniques to predict water quality in advance, rather than placing reliance on ex post assessments; and

    —  the widest possible dissemination of updated information, with use being made of the internet as well as more conventional media.

The Government's view

  24.7  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 14 February 2001, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr Bob Ainsworth) says that the 1976 Bathing Water Directive has been overtaken by developments in Community law and by scientific and technical advances, and that the Government favours its revision where this would allow better targeting of resources without weakening standards of protection. He adds that it welcomes both the broad approach suggested in the Communication, and the opportunity for consultation and further discussion. Arrangements are in hand to consult interested parties within the UK, and the main issues to be examined will include the definitions of bathing waters and bathing (including the treatment of other forms of water recreation), the practicality of the various management actions envisaged, the setting of water quality standards, and the provision of information to the public.


  24.8  As we have noted, previous attempts by the Commission to amend the 1976 Directive ran into serious difficulties, and it is therefore welcome that it has on this occasion sought to give advance notice of its thinking in this way before putting forward any detailed legislative proposals. As the Minister suggests, there may well be a case for amending the earlier Directive, bearing in mind that a quarter of a century has elapsed since it was enacted. Nevertheless, if any new proposals for legislation are to avoid the fate of those put forward in 1994 and 1997, it will be important for them to reflect some of the criticisms made then, and the way in which the Commission approaches the areas identified at the end of the previous paragraph will be crucial in this respect. Consequently, whilst we are clearing this document, we will want to look very closely at any such proposals when they emerge.

50  OJ No. L 31, 5.2.76, p.1. Back

51  (15300) 6177/94; see headnote to this paragraph. Back

52  (18652) 12591/97; see HC 155-xii (1997-98), paragraph 1 (14 January 1998). Back

53  OJ No. L 327, 22.12.00, p.1. Back

54  OJ No. L 135, 30.5.91, p.40. Back

55  OJ No. L 375, 31.12.91, p.1. Back

56  The Commission points out that environmental and ecological parameters are now addressed by the Water Framework Directive. Back

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