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.

7. Conclusions

7.1 Summary of key findings

7.1.1 The benefits of bathing waters at the local and national levels

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. Different types of visitors undertake different main activities. Walking and dog walking are dominant among local residents whereas relaxing and getting fresh air are common across all visitor types.

Bathing waters as economic assets. Bathing water sites are important assets for local, regional and national economies as revealed by the evidence review, as well as by the onsite and online surveys. The local economic impact analysis based on the on-site 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). The online survey asked more detailed questions about specific aspects of restorativeness. Aspects that online respondents identified with particularly strongly included the notion of a beach / bathing water as: (i) a restful environment where ability and focus can be recovered; and (ii) a place away from everyday demands where people can relax and think about their interests.

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. Within this, participants highlighted how the quality of the beach and the sea is integral to their enjoyment (e.g. the sight of ‘clean’ water was thought of as being inextricably linked to the sense of enjoyment participants get from the sea). Furthermore, the local beach and sea were seen as part of everyday life and participants’ locality and a strong sense of ownership and identity was felt by participants in relation to their local beach. Most of the participants visit their local beach at least a few times a week.

7.1.2 The importance of information about bathing water quality

Factors / motivations that influence individuals’ choices about which beaches to visit would also influence BWQ information requirements. For example, tourists can be more focussed on beach cleanliness whereas ‘active recreationalists’ (e.g. surfers) can place more emphasis on physical factors, such as surf / swell conditions. In the onsite survey, ‘natural beauty / scenery’ (21%) was the most important factor influencing beach choice followed by ‘cleanliness of the beach’ (18%). The importance of beach cleanliness as a motivating factor suggests that BWQ information may be important.

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 and, crucially, only 5.2% of respondents (n=27) correctly identified the BWQ at the site they were visiting.

Awareness / use of rBWD signage. Results from the onsite and online surveys identified the types of signage that respondents had / have seen during beach visits. A high proportion (70%) of respondents to the onsite survey at one site (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. Responses to the onsite survey revealed that the SEPA bathing waters webpage is not used as an information source when deciding which beach to go to.

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 bathing on a visit to the beach. 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 (although respondents in the online survey demonstrated their WTP for improvements in BWQ – see section 7.1.3). This echoes the limited interest in rBWD signage expressed by respondents in the online survey (see above). Similar results were found in a previous large-scale national survey for England where circa 70% of the sample reported that an advisory sign would not impact the frequency of their visits (eftec et al., 2014).

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 of "poor" BWQ were not concerned that current BWQ could have an impact on their health was impacting their health. However, concerns were expressed at three of the sessions that information about poor BWQ could result in reputational damage to the area (e.g. for local businesses). There was an expectation that relevant authorities would be working to prevent BWQ from deteriorating to a ‘poor’ designation. There was also a general perception that existing BWQ information (e.g. on static and electronic rBWD signage) is poor and, as such, some participants turn to alternative sources (e.g. social media, word-of-mouth, local sports clubs). This meant there was an appetite for more / better information, particularly for those participating in water-based activities (e.g. wild swimming). It was felt that signage could usefully convey more information (e.g. water safety).

7.1.3 The benefits (or costs) of an improvement (or deterioration) in bathing water quality classification

Monetary value of recreational visits to the five case study bathing waters. The travel cost method was used to design the onsite survey which estimated visitor Willingness to Pay ( WTP) on the basis of the cost of travelling to / from the site and for access and recreation opportunities. The estimated average 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.

Reduction in visits and loss of recreational value in the event of advisory against bathing. The onsite and online surveys revealed how respondents would change their behaviour in the event of an advisory against bathing, including those respondents who would no longer visit (see section 7.1.2). Results suggest that around 5% of onsite respondents and 29% of online 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. Choice experiment questions undertaken as part of the online survey asked respondents for their preferences for the BWQ at all beaches in Scotland and at the beach they identify with the most. 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. It is potentially a useful input for cost benefit analyses ( CBA) (i.e. comparing the costs of achieving the 1% reduction with this benefit) (see section 7.3). Estimated WTP per household for improvements in the bathing water quality at the beach visited most often increases with higher status levels. The greatest value is attached to ensuring a bathing water meets ‘excellent’ status, with the WTP for the shift from ‘poor for 5 years’ to ‘excellent’ of approximately £85.

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 (see section 7.1.1). This means that although respondents are not dramatically changing their behaviour following advisory against bathing (i.e. a high proportion of respondents would still visit the beach / bathing water), 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 sharp 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 place-based contextualised perspective (i.e. from the local residents / businesses in the focus groups) can influence the values people place on natural assets, such as bathing waters.

7.2 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), including in relation to different types of site (e.g. maintaining ‘light touch’ intervention at sites that are valued for their remoteness, aesthetics / landscape quality etc). Such an approach could contribute to more effective management (including in terms of resource allocation) 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 (e.g. the capacity of waste water treatment infrastructure to accommodate further coastal development, including housing). 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. This should extend to the management of land based activities (e.g. agriculture, forestry) where appropriate regulatory / incentive mechanisms are available.

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 or because they, on average, would happily modify their behaviour to not go in the water if / when required. The results were more nuanced in the focus groups suggesting a degree of ambivalence about BWQ (e.g. participants expressed limited concern about the health impacts of BWQ whilst at the same time expressing a desire for more / better BWQ information).

There may be a case for more targeted BWQ information towards the smaller proportion of bathing water users / user groups who: (i) do go in the water; (ii) would be less likely to modify their behaviour in the event of advisory against bathing; and (iii) have expressed an interest in more / better BWQ information (e.g. more real-time information accounting for the dynamic nature of bathing water systems). This could include awareness raising activities aimed at ‘active user’ groups such as surfers (who, evidence shows, are less likely to take account of BWQ information) about the health risks associated with on-water immersive / non-immersive activities in poor BWQ.

There is also a case for communication with wider users, especially as the focus group findings suggested that there was interest in the designation and status once discussed with participants, though this was combined with some scepticism as to its accuracy and reliability. As in other areas of risk communication and management (e.g. flood risk management), we would suggest that there is potential to work with local citizens to develop an approach of communicating BWQ issues that draws upon local knowledge. There could also be merit in developing a citizen science project to help collect data on BWQ (e.g. as part of more granular monitoring to account for the dynamics of bathing water systems).

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.

7.3 What can be derived from the available evidence about the overall value of bathing water quality in Scotland?

Consideration of multiple perspectives on ‘value’. This project has brought together a number of perspectives on what value of beaches and influence of bathing water quality mean to users of beaches in Scotland. By taking a mixed methods approach the economic, recreational, social and emotional value of bathing waters have been investigated, providing a holistic understanding that is grounded in people’s experience.

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. 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. On the other hand, the data suggests that 22,436 fewer visits would be likely to take place following an advisory against bathing at the case study sites, equating to an estimated loss of recreational value of £0.2M per year.

Use of the WTP value to estimate total recreational value at different scales. The per trip WTP value (£8.90) based on travel cost can be applied to estimate recreation value at other bathing water sites or at the aggregate for all bathing waters in Scotland. When applying the values produced from this study, Defra’s value transfer guidelines should be used (eftec, 2009). These guidelines emphasise transparency and the appropriate use of sensitivity analysis to address concerns of accuracy.

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, as a result, 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).

Factors influencing beach / bathing water choice. The study identified various factors influencing choice of which beach / bathing water to visit. Water quality / BWQ was not a priority issue (although a wider notion of ‘beach cleanliness’ was identified as important in the onsite survey). BWQ is clearly important to people (e.g. given the choice experiment results, evidence from the focus groups) but because the majority of people don’t go in the water, it is not seen as a risk. While it is not pleasant to see a sign advising against bathing, only 29% (online survey) and 5% (onsite survey) said it would impact how often they would visit the beach / bathing water in future.

7.4 Future research

The following are recommendations for future research that could address some of the gaps and / or additional questions highlighted in this research project:

A cost benefit analysis using the findings of this study. Future work should compare the benefit of maintaining BWQ at ‘sufficient’ status (i.e. avoiding advisory against bathing) (or any other policy target) to the cost of doing this. Conservative monetary values for the benefits in this equation have been obtained through this study (for the five case study sites and in terms of a nationally representative value), addressing a specific gap identified by the Scottish Government in the brief for this project. This analysis would require matching the data on costs associated with managing pressures (e.g. waste water treatment infrastructure, agricultural land management) to bathing water quality improvements and to benefits.

The role of litter in impacting visitor numbers at beaches / bathing water sites and the benefits they receive should be explored further. Given perceptions of ‘beach cleanliness’ identified in the literature and responses to the onsite and online surveys revealing motivating factors behind beach choice, litter and wider beach cleanliness has the potential to be more significant than water quality in determining the quantity and quality of beach visits.

The extent to which perceived restorativeness impacts on beach visits could be further explored. This could also include a more in-depth look at health and wellbeing effects, perhaps for specific sub-groups of the population (e.g. groups with particular illnesses who could benefit from beach visits or where beach visits could facilitate active recreation). This study focused on general visits made by the general public. More active and restorative visits could generate additional benefits for specific groups – while the groups are likely to be smaller in number, value to the individual could be higher than average [25] . Such information, along with the results of this study, could be used in a cost benefit analysis of implementing the rBWD or, more generally, for preparing a comprehensive Natural Capital Account for Scotland – including for bathing water assets.

Assessing future trends in recreational usage of bathing waters and climate change impacts. Long-term trends in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK suggest adjustments in work-life balance such that people will have more free time / time available for recreation and potentially more disposable income. Given this, it may be reasonable to assume that in the future, more recreational visits are made to bathing waters with an associated increase in recreational value (i.e. WTP per person per visit x number of visits) and local economic benefits. Furthermore, climate change is expected to influence future levels and type of recreational usage at beaches including hotter drier weather prompting increased visits for relaxing, sunbathing, swimming and paddling though loss of beach area due to sea level rise may constrain this somewhat (Coombes and Jones, 2010). The interplay between these factors and the implications for bathing water and beach management, including in relation to climate projections for different Scottish regions, should be considered carefully in the context of future research and monitoring requirements.

Overall, this research project has demonstrated how Scottish bathing waters deliver multiple benefits to local people and their communities, local businesses and visitors, covering many different aspects. The impact of BWQ on these benefits suggests that bathing waters should be an ongoing area of policy and management for the Scottish Government, SEPA and other key stakeholders.


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