Value of bathing waters and influence of bathing water quality: final research report

Research aimed to provide socio-economic understanding of the value of Scottish bathing waters and the influence of bathing water quality (BWQ) to bathers, beach users and to the national and local economies.

Executive summary

Aims and objectives of the research project

The Scottish Government commissioned Collingwood Environmental Planning Limited ( CEP) in association with Economics for the Environment Consultancy (eftec) to undertake a research project in Scotland that would investigate the value of bathing waters and the influence of bathing water quality. The project commenced in May 2017 and completed in March 2018.

The overall aim of the research was to provide a detailed and quantifiable socio-economic understanding of the value of Scottish bathing waters and the influence of bathing water quality ( BWQ) to bathers, beach users and to the national and local economies.

Four specific research objectives were also addressed, as follows: (1) to assess the benefits of bathing waters and the value of bathing water quality at a local and national scale; (2) to assess the impact of the bathing water quality classification signs / symbols; (3) to understand and assess the benefits (or costs) of an improvement (or deterioration) in bathing water quality classification; and (4) to make recommendations for policy and practice, by providing recommendations on the management and assessment of designated bathing water sites, and the overall value of bathing water quality in Scotland.

The project brought together a number of perspectives on what the value of beaches and influence of bathing water quality mean to users of beaches in Scotland. A mixed methods approach was adopted which allowed the economic, recreational, social and emotional value of bathing waters to be investigated, providing a holistic understanding that is grounded in people’s experience.

Summary of key findings

Main activities undertaken at bathing water sites. Walking, relaxing, dog walking and socialising / spending time with friends and family are the main activities as identified by both the onsite and online surveys. Water based immersive and non-immersive activities were also identified in both surveys but less frequently.

Bathing waters as economic assets. The local economic impact analysis based on the onsite survey data estimated total local economic benefits across the five case study sites as follows: (i) £19.4M local business turnover supported; (ii) 263 Full Time Equivalent ( FTE) jobs related to visitor spend; and (iii) £8.8M in Gross Value Added ( GVA).

Restorative benefits of bathing waters. Results from the onsite and online surveys revealed that the majority of respondents find beaches and bathing waters to be beneficial in terms of physical and psychological restorativeness (e.g. in terms of making visitors feel revitalised, calm and refreshed).

Focus groups reveal the multiple benefits of bathing waters. Evidence from the focus groups revealed how the local beach and the sea is integral to the recreational, social, wellbeing, community and economic benefits that local communities (and businesses) enjoy. Most of the participants visit their local beach at least a few times a week.

Limited awareness of rBWD designation and BWQ status. Results from the onsite survey revealed that the majority of respondents (60%) were not aware that the beach they were visiting was a designated bathing water. Of the 40% that did know, there was limited and / or incorrect awareness of the site’s BWQ status (most respondents overestimated BWQ).

Awareness / use of rBWD signage. A high proportion (70%) of respondents to the onsite survey at Gullane said they had seen a rBWD electronic sign even though this site is not part of SEPA’s electronic signage network. In addition, a high proportion (72%) of online survey respondents said that they hadn’t seen / don’t remember seeing any signs and, crucially, that they didn’t look for them.

Behavioural response to advisory against bathing suggests limited concern about BWQ. The surveys showed that the majority of respondents would not change their decision to visit the relevant beach and the frequency of visits in future if they saw an advisory sign against. From this, it is reasonable to assume that permanent advice against bathing would have a somewhat minimal effect on recreational opportunities and visit patterns at Scotland’s bathing water sites.

Limited concern about health impacts of BWQ among focus group participants though appetite for more / better BWQ information. Evidence from the focus groups showed that most participants who went into the water or who used the beach recreationally in areas where the BWQ was ‘poor’ were not concerned that current BWQ could potentially impact their health. There was also a general perception that existing BWQ information is poor. This meant there was an appetite for more / better information, particularly for those participating in water-based activities (e.g. wild swimming).

Monetary value of recreational visits to the five case study bathing waters. The estimated average willingness to pay ( WTP) (all sites) was £8.90 per person per visit. On average, onsite survey respondents make around 40 visits to the bathing water per year meaning an annual expenditure of £356 per respondent. Across the five sites, this equates to a total annual estimated recreational value of £12.7M. These represent conservative proxies for the per person trip / annual and total annual monetary values of the recreational and access benefits enjoyed by visitors to the five case study sites considered in this research

Reduction in visits and loss of recreational value in the event of advisory against bathing. The results suggest that around 5% of onsite respondents and 29% of online survey respondents would visit less often, resulting in reductions in annual visits of 22,436 and 358,567, respectively. This equates to an estimated loss of recreational value of between £0.2M (onsite) and £3.19M (online) per year (applying the estimated WTP per visit of £8.90). These values can be interpreted as the benefits of meeting ‘sufficient’ status (i.e. not displaying advice against bathing).

Amount households are willing to pay for BWQ improvements. Average WTP per household for a 1% reduction in the number of Scottish beaches failing to meet BWQ standards were estimated at £0.93 per household per year or £2M per year for all households in Scotland. This can be interpreted as the value of the benefits associated with this level of improvement in BWQ standards.

Deterioration in BWQ may impact the quality of visits if not the quantity. Statistical analysis of the onsite and online survey data revealed that perceived BWQ was found to be a key predictor (statistically significant) of wellbeing outcomes linked to the restorativeness benefits of bathing waters. This means that although respondents are not dramatically changing their behaviour following advisory against bathing, the quality of the visit would be diminished as the perceived restorative benefits received would be less.

Focus group participants were more affected by a change in BWQ than survey respondents. Results from the onsite and online surveys suggest that the cost of a deterioration in BWQ would be relatively small (as a function of reduced visits). This in contrast however to the strength of feeling expressed in the focus groups in response to the possibility of permanent advice against bathing. This shows how a more contextualised perspective can influence the values people place on natural assets (e.g. bathing waters).

Key learning about the overall value of bathing water quality in Scotland

Local economic benefits associated with visits to case study bathing water sites. Although it is not appropriate to extrapolate the case study local economic impact estimates (£19.4m business turnover, 263 FTE, £8.8M GVA), they give a sense of the potential magnitude of the economic benefits of Scotland’s bathing waters, considering that there are 86 designated sites in total.

The value of recreational visits to case study bathing water sites. Data from the onsite survey revealed that the estimated WTP for recreational visits (the welfare value) to the five case study bathing water sites is: (i) £8.90 per person per visit; (ii) £356 per person per year; or (iii) £12.7M per year for all visits across all five sites.

The value of improving BWQ standards at the national level. Reducing the number of Scottish beaches failing to meet BWQ standards by 1% would result in benefits equating to £2M. This value can be used alongside the costs of meeting the same objective in CBA to inform policy decisions.

The overall importance of Scottish bathing waters. Visits to the beach are important for the respondents: nearly 50% of them visit more than once a month (across both onsite and online surveys). Respondents do various activities at the beach and receive various multiple benefits. The benefits received are significant, especially considering that physical and mental health and wellbeing benefits (potentially the largest benefits delivered) have not been elaborated on in this study (beyond restorative benefits).

Recommendations for bathing water management

Prioritisation of management / investment. There is an argument for prioritisation of beach / BWQ management intervention and investment towards the types of activity people are most interested in undertaking on the beach / at the bathing water site (e.g. ensuring adequate provision of dog waste bins) This could contribute to more effective management within the authorities responsible for key aspects of beach management (e.g. SEPA, local authorities).

Managing pressures on bathing waters / the marine environment. Evidence from the focus groups suggests that members of the public have some concerns about the impact of development (as a pressure) on BWQ. These are legitimate concerns and development should be managed sensitively to ensure that BWQ (and other aspects of the water environment) are not adversely affected..

Improvements to BWQ information. Results from both surveys suggest that awareness of bathing water designation is low and that there is limited concern about BWQ and advisory against bathing, mainly because respondents don’t go in the water anyway. There may be a case for more targeted BWQ information towards the smaller proportion of bathing water users / user groups who do go in the water. This could include awareness raising activities aimed at ‘active user’ groups such as surfers about the health risks associated with on-water immersive / non-immersive activities in poor BWQ.

Households value improved levels of BWQ quality – implications for policy. The online survey shows that the higher the bathing water status of the most visited beach is, the higher respondents are willing to pay to maintain it. The greatest value is attached to ensuring bathing waters that meet ‘excellent’ status. Respondents are indifferent to improvements at lower levels of bathing water quality but have significant WTP for moving from ‘poor for 5 years’ to ‘excellent’ of approximately £85 per household per year. This implies that in future, while achieving ‘good’ quality may become a policy objective, the additional benefits associated with this change may be small. WTP for a 1% reduction in the number of Scottish beaches failing to meet rBWD standards is £ 0.93, and WTP for one unit increase in litter removed (implies that 1% more beach litter is removed) is £0.44. The total WTP for households in Scotland for 1% reduction in bathing waters failing is estimated at £2 million per year. This value can be presented as an annualised benefit over a specified time horizon for use in decision-making, for example within policy.

Monetary values for policy appraisal, CBA etc. The research produced several values that can potentially be used by the Scottish Government and other stakeholders to inform bathing waters policy decisions, as part of CBA etc.


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