Don’t take me to the
river, says Roger Ratcliffe

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I lived in Ilkley for six years and still visit two or three times a week. Set against the backdrop of its famous moor the town is one of the most picturesque places in Yorkshire.

In common with other former spas like Harrogate, Buxton and Matlock, Ilkley owed its early prosperity to water and became a popular resort with wealthy Victorians.

The hydropathic treatment hotels may have closed long ago but water has given Ilkley a new fame. Sadly, though, this soon turned to notoriety.

In December 2020 it was announced that part of the River Wharfe that flows through the town from its source high in the Yorkshire Dales would become England’s first officially designated river bathing place following a recommendation by the Environment Agency (EA) based on an assessment of its water quality.

But within nine months new measurements of water-borne bacteria there revealed that, actually, it was the most polluted place to bathe in the country. Average levels of E.coli – a sign of human or animal faeces in the water – were 20 times higher than the figure considered safe by the EA.

I remember thinking at the time of the “safe to bathe” announcement that they must be crazy. I couldn’t help thinking of the mayor in Jaws saying the beaches were safe even though a shark was at large. That’s because the actual bathing area is downstream from several sewage outfalls, systems that are generally known to overflow with the untreated stuff after heavy rainfall. It didn’t make sense to tell people it was safe to bathe there when on some days they might potentially suffer E.coli symptoms like stomach pains, diarrhoea, vomiting or worse.

Ilkley had pushed hard for the designation. The town sees itself as an inland holiday resort. When it got the bad news the Ilkley Clean River Group, which had campaigned for bathing water status, quickly amended its website with an uppercase red-letter warning and list of pretty offputting precautions. “If you get ill,” it said, “then you should take it up by contacting the EA”.

This turned out to be a bad joke. Last year the EA received 116,000 reports of water, air and land pollution in England, but a couple of weeks ago leaked documents revealed that most of those reports were ignored. Apparently the EA had ordered its staff to deal with only high-profile cases, which meant that just 8,000 pollution incidents were checked. This is a consequence of government under-funding.

On the same day the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee released its long-awaited report on the water quality of English rivers, which found that only 14 per cent of tested sites were considered ecologically good. Pollution from agriculture, sewage, roads and single-use plastics had produced a “dangerous chemical cocktail”, MPs said, and not a single river was given a clean bill of health for swimming.

At the moment, you and I are banned from suing the water companies if we get ill after wild swimming, following a high court ruling that United Utilities – which supplies water in the North West – was cleared of legal liability for discharging raw sewage into the Manchester Ship Canal.

Without the EU environmental protections which safeguarded us for decades, our waterways are in danger of returning to the open sewers of Victorian times.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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