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.

2. Context for the research

This chapter briefly sets out the context for the research project. Section 2.1 outlines the policy context for bathing waters in Scotland. Section 2.2 then presents a summary of existing evidence concerning the value of bathing waters and the influence of BWQ. The full evidence review has been published as a separate document alongside this Final Research Report.

2.1 Policy context for bathing waters in Scotland

Historically, key pressures on bathing waters in Scotland have been ‘point source pollution’ from sewage and ‘diffuse source pollution’ from agriculture (run-off), both of which are exacerbated by heavy rainfall. Significant investments in sewage treatment infrastructure led to an overall improvement in the quality of Scottish bathing waters in the mid-2000s, with a steady improvement continuing to date.

Figure 2.1: Location of designated water sites in Scotland and clasification for the 2016/17 bathing water season (Source: SEPA, 2016)

Figure 2.1: Location of designated water sites in Scotland and clasification for the 2016/17 bathing water season (Source: SEPA, 2016)

However, in 2006, the revised Bathing Water Directive ( rBWD) (2006/7/EC) replaced the previous Directive (76/10/ EEC), setting more stringent bathing water quality ( BWQ) standards for the protection of public health, to be met by 2015. The rBWD was translated into Scottish law by The Bathing Waters (Scotland) Regulations 2008. The higher standards of the rBWD resulted in a number of Scotland’s bathing waters failing to meet the new quality targets. Bathing waters are classified by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency ( SEPA) at the end of each bathing water season for the next year, to four levels of quality based on standards of bacteriological quality [1] . The recent classifications for 2017/18 reveal that 11 out of 86 designated sites are ranked as poor (12.8%) ( SEPA, 2017). Figure 2.1 above shows the location of designated bathing waters around Scotland and designations for the 2016/17 bathing water season [2] .

The rBWD requires member states ( MS) to achieve a bathing water classification of ‘sufficient’ and above for their designated sites. The key risk for MS concerns the provision in the rBWD whereby sites classified as ‘poor’ over five consecutive years can receive a ‘permanent advice’ against bathing. This requires a notice to be displayed at the site, advising beach users of the classification status [3] . For beach managers and other stakeholders (e.g. local businesses, local residents, user groups, conservation charities), this raises concerns over reputational damage, perceptions of poor environmental quality in a wider sense etc, that might somehow erode the ‘value’ of the bathing water site (i.e. in terms of the various benefits derived from the site). In effect, this is the key ‘stick’ based mechanism for rBWD compliance. The issue of the value of bathing waters and the influence of BWQ on value is the key question investigated in this research.

Table 2.1: Recent trends in bathing water classification for the five case study sites

Site Bathing water classification
2015/16 2016/17 2017/18*
Ayr (South Beach) Sufficient Poor Poor
Gullane Excellent Excellent Excellent
Nairn (Central) Poor Poor Sufficient
Portobello (West) Poor Poor Poor
Troon (South Beach) Good Sufficient Good

* 2017/18 classifications to be confirmed by European Commission ( EC) Spring 2018.

Table 2.1 above shows recent trends in rBWD classification for the five case study bathing water sites considered in this research (see section 3.2 for full details of the case study aspect of this research). This serves to illustrate the issue of rBWD compliance and the associated risk to MS and local stakeholders of permanent advice against bathing in the sense that Ayr (South Beach) and Portobello (West) are at risk of permanent advice against bathing, particularly Portobello (West) which has now had three consecutive years of poor BWQ. The dynamics of the systems involved (sewage treatment, agricultural run-off, hydrology) combined with seasonal variation in weather patterns mean that wet summers in 2018 and 2019 could put Portobello (West) at significant risk of permanent advice against bathing. Conversely, Nairn (Central) saw an improvement in BWQ in the 2017/18 season from ‘poor’ to ‘sufficient’, meaning that it is no longer (currently) at risk of permanent advice against bathing.

The challenge of implementing the rBWD lies in balancing the costs to stakeholders (e.g. water companies, the agricultural sector, local authorities) of maintaining BWQ classification at ‘sufficient’ or better at all designated bathing water sites versus the costs of not maintaining ‘sufficient’ status (e.g. in terms of loss of tourism revenue and uptake of informal recreation opportunities). The costs to stakeholders of maintaining ‘sufficient’ status are generally known (e.g. the cost to water companies of maintaining or upgrading waste water treatment infrastructure). However, the costs of not maintaining ‘sufficient’ status, in terms of the loss of the range of benefits provided by bathing waters, are less well understood. This is because: (i) the range and (monetary) value of benefits provided by bathing waters is not fully understood; and (ii) it is not known how members of the public would respond to permanent advice against bathing.

There are a range of benefits that marine and coastal environments offer to society, including economic, health and wellbeing and social and cultural benefits. Bathing waters and the impact of the rBWD represents a sub-set within this. A key question for bathing waters policy therefore concerns the ‘value’ [4] of these benefits, the influence of BWQ on the range of benefits provided and the resultant changes in value that may be caused by a decrease (or increase) in BWQ. The outputs of this research are envisaged to help clarify these costs and benefits by identifying the monetary (and other) value(s) of bathing waters, the costs associated with a deterioration of BWQ and individuals’ willingness to pay ( WTP) for an improvement in BWQ.

There are a range of additional policy drivers to be taken into consideration that influence the management of bathing water sites. These include both statutory (European and Scottish laws regarding water quality standards) and non-statutory (Scottish Government commitments) policies. Key areas of environmental (and other) policy complimenting the rBWD include:

  • The Water Framework Directive (2000/60/ EC), which provides a framework to manage the water environment, of which bathing waters are a protected aspect. The Directive was transposed into Scots law by the Water Environment and Water Services ( WEWS) (Scotland) Act 2003;
  • The Water Resources (Scotland) Act 2013, which sets out responsibilities of Scottish Water and Scottish Ministers. Key relevant elements relate to "permit the taking of steps for the sake of water quality" and improvements in sewerage services;
  • The Marine Strategy Framework Directive ( MSFD), in contributing to reaching "good environmental status" by 2020;
  • The Marine (Scotland) Act 2020 which directs the requirement for marine planning in Scottish inshore waters, including policies and management measures to balance social, ecological and economic objectives, which may include measures on bathing waters where relevant; and
  • The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act (2015), which places an increased duty on public bodies to ensure that communities can influence decisions about services.

As such, this study on understanding and measuring the value of bathing waters and the influence of BWQ in Scotland is both timely and important, given the overall policy context for bathing water, the risks concerning successive poor classifications under the rBWD as well as the importance of engaging local communities (as outlined in the Community Empowerment Act).

2.2 Evidence review summary – what is known already?

As part of the early stages of this research project, an evidence review was undertaken to identify:

  • Existing knowledge, research and practice concerning bathing water values and valuation in Scotland, the wider UK, and other similar contexts (e.g. northwest Europe);
  • The influence of BWQ and other issues, including the range of benefits (e.g. economic, health and wellbeing) derived from bathing waters; and
  • The factors that can influence individuals’ choice of bathing water, and the influence of BWQ signs and signage on these choices.

The full evidence review has been published as a separate document alongside this Final Research Report. The evidence review has also been drawn on extensively in the write-up of this Report, particularly in terms of: (i) providing highlights of the current state of knowledge at the start of each results chapter; and (ii) facilitating a comparison of the results from this current study with evidence from previous studies (to identify divergence, similarities etc) as part of mini discussion / synthesis sections at the end of each results chapters. A summary of the resuls from the evidence review are provided in the sub-section below.

2.2.1 The benefits of bathing waters

This part of the review identified what is known about the range and type of benefits provided by bathing waters at local and national levels. Key findings include:

  • A variety of frameworks are used across the literature reviewed for the classification of benefits from bathing waters. Examples include ecosystem services (Ghermandi et al., 2010; UK NEA, 2011) and total economic value ( TEV) (Hynes et al., 2013; Oliver et al., 2016; Johnston et al., 2017);
  • The review identified various benefits of bathing waters that can be organised under several categories (economic, health and wellbeing, social and cultural);
  • Bathing waters sites are important assets for local, regional and national economies (Tudor and Williams, 2006; Vaz et al., 2009; Gillespie et al., 2016; Reed and Buckmaster, 2015; Philips and House, 2009; Morrissey and Moran, 2011; Hynes et al., 2013; Ballance et al., 2000). By way of example, a recent (2016) survey in Scotland (Visit Scotland, 2016) showed that domestic visits alone to Scottish seaside locations generate an average of 1.5 million trips and £323M in expenditure per annum;
  • The literature reviewed identified various physical and psychological benefits derived by visiting or being close to coastal environments (including bathing waters). These include improvements in: (i) mood and cognitive attention [5] ; (ii) self-reported health (White et al., 2013a); (iii) quality of life [6] ; (iv) physical health (reduced blood pressure) [7] (Hipp and Ogunseitan, 2011; Wyles et al., 2016; GESAMP, 2015); and (v) reduced stress [8] .
  • Social and cultural benefits cover a range of aspects including the way in which high quality bathing waters can contribute to a sense of ownership and pride of place for local residents and communities (Barnes, 2008). Beaches also offer an ideal environment for children and adults to learn about coastal environments, giving rise to educational benefits (Wyles et al., 2017).

2.2.2 Methods and approaches for measuring the benefits of bathing waters

This part of the review brought together evidence relating to methods and approaches for measuring the benefits of bathing waters and the implications of changes in BWQ for local and national economies. Key findings include:

  • Studies tend to use a combination of economic methods incorporating questions that identify current and intended use, but also capturing the emotional response to beaches and coastal environments;
  • There is limited literature on the impacts of a change in bathing water classification on the benefits provided by bathing waters (Cascade Consulting and eftec, 2009; eftec et al., 2014; Accent, 2010; eftec, 2002). However, quantitative measures that have been used include changes in the ‘number of visitors’ and ‘frequency of trips’ to bathing water sites due to an improvement or deterioration in BWQ (Hanley et al., 2003; McKenna et al., 2011; Gillespie et al., 2016). There is also some evidence (Nahman and Rigby, 2008) suggesting that changes in BWQ would have a greater economic impact than loss of Blue Flag status (a UK-wide beach award scheme); and
  • Three possible approaches for assessing the local economic impact of Scotland’s bathing waters have been identified in the review. On balance, it is felt that the Cambridge Model [9] , which produces the final economic outputs: (i) business turnover, (ii) associated employment supported by expenditure and (iii) GVA estimates, adapted for use in Scotland, was the most appropriate approach for use in this project.

2.2.3 Factors that influence beach visitors’ use of bathing waters

This part of the review identified what is known about the importance people put on information (signs and signage) about BWQ as a factor influencing beach visit decisions. Key findings include:

  • From the sources reviewed, there is only a small literature addressing the nature / type of information that influences peoples’ beach choice decisions (Tudor and Williams, 2006; Phillips and House, 2009; Mckenna et al., 2011; Shepherd, 2014). Further, only three sources in the review dealt explicitly with signage (eftec, 2002; eftec et al., 2014; Oliver et al., 2016);
  • Explicit and implicit information about a beach and its associated bathing water / BWQ influences beach choice decisions. Implicit information relates to beach user perceptions concerning the attributes, characteristics and features of different types of beach (e.g. remote rural vs urban) (Morgan, 1999; Vaz et al., 2009);
  • There are a wide variety of factors that can influence beach choice decisions, over and above BWQ. These can be categorised in terms of: (i) facilities; (ii) bathing and swimming safety; (iii) sand and water quality – includes BWQ; and (iv) access and parking (Morgan, 1999); and
  • Water quality along with wider notions of ‘beach cleanliness’ is frequently cited as one of the top three factors influencing beach choice decisions (Morgan, 1999; Ballance et al., 2000, Tudor and Williams, 2006, Vaz et al., 2009, McKenna et al., 2011, Shepherd, 2014). However, it is unclear how members of the public define and understand these factors.

2.2.4 Awareness, understanding and influence of beach signs

This part of the review identified what is known about how / what people understand about the information presented on BWQ signs and signage, particularly in terms of information concerning changes in classification. Key findings include:

  • From the sources reviewed, there is very limited evidence against this question, specifically empirical evidence. Only three sources reviewed (eftec, 2002; eftec et al., 2014; Oliver et al., 2016) deal specifically with peoples’ understanding of BWQ signs and signage and mainly in terms of setting the research agenda, identifying knowledge gaps etc;
  • The effectiveness of different means of communicating BWQ information is poorly understood (e.g. in terms of what types of information is presented and how) (Oliver et al., 2016). Accordingly, further research is needed to better understand this aspect, informing the design of effective signs and signage;
  • Empirical evidence from a Scottish study (Ayrshire coast) (Hanley et al., 2003) showed that the majority of survey respondents were not confident in making judgements on water quality. Further, 60% said they know very little about the issue; and
  • It has been suggested that the symbols used on existing statutory signage under the rBWD provides little useful information on what the different classifications might mean in terms of health risks (Oliver et al., 2016).

2.2.5 Recommendations for bathing water / beach management in Scotland

This part of the review used the available evidence to identify recommendations for bathing water / beach management in Scotland. These initial recommendations have been elaborated following the empirical stages of this research project (see the conclusions chapter of this report). Key findings include:

  • Information on bathing water / beach values (e.g. economic, socio-cultural) can play a key role informing management decisions (e.g. planning facilities, determining access and transport capacity) (Ballance et al., 2000). It is also important to bear in mind that some more rural / remote sites can be highly valued precisely because they have few amenities and facilities (Morgan, 1999; Vaz et al., 2009);
  • Information on the type and range of recreational user groups that make use of a particular bathing water / beach can be useful for informing management decisions (Morgan, 1999; Phillips and House, 2009; McKenna et al., 2011; Hynes et al., 2013). For example, practical concerns over safety whereby investment to improve BWQ could be targeted towards sites of high use in terms of immersion and on-water recreational activities (Hynes et al., 2013); and
  • There may be scope to improve existing beach / BWQ signage by: (i) making signs more interactive, especially for children; (ii) increasing the space on beach signs allocated to BWQ issues; and (iii) better use of social media to communicate information on BWQ issues (Shepherd, 2014).


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