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Popular swimming spot near Bristol could be cleaned up after thousands sign petition

Campaigners gathered outside City Hall this week in a colourful protest against a council byelaw restricting swimming at Conham River Park.

Image of swimming campaigners outside City Hall, Bristol (image: James Ward)

A popular swimming spot on the River Avon near Bristol could be cleaned up, after thousands of people signed a petition.

At a full council meeting this week, councillors from all parties voiced support for calls to scrap a rule banning swimming in the river, which could lead to the water at Conham River Park getting cleaner.

Katja Hornchen, speaking on behalf of the Labour group, said that removing the byelaw and giving that part of the river designated bathing water status would require the Environment Agency to monitor pollution while giving local people their “rights” to enjoy the water.

She warned though that there remained work to do, in conjunction with local community groups, to ensure potential safety concerns, including around steep riverbanks and the need to share the water with boats, were addressed.

Swimmers can often be seen in the summer at the spot in the Avon woodlands, despite swimming technically going against a council byelaw, which bans swimming in the harbourside and the river Avon. But raw sewage is sometimes dumped into the river, which can cause illnesses.

In 2021, the Cable revealed that utility company Wessex Water had spilled untreated sewage into the Avon for more than 100,000 hours that year alone. E. Coli levels at Conham were found to be 20 times the level deemed “sufficient” for swimming, according to World Health Organization standards.

Campaigners gathered outside City Hall on Tuesday 18 October, in swimming costumes to demand the council drop this byelaw, and presented a petition to that afternoon’s full council meeting.

The Conham Bathing group said their application to the Environment Agency, to get bathing water status for Conham, needed the approval of the council as the landowner.

‘Rare and beautiful space’

Becca Blease, coordinator of the Conham Bathing Water Group said: “We’re a group of volunteers trying to apply for designated bathing water status in Bristol’s most popular outdoor swimming spot, in a stretch of the river Avon at Conham River Park. With this status, the Environment Agency would regularly sample the water to check that it’s safe for bathing and would also be responsible for investigating the sources of pollution and implementing water quality improvement measures.

“We’ve gathered almost all the evidence required for an application, the only remaining requirement is to obtain permission from the landowner, which is the council,” Blease added.

But she said that when the council had been asked to support the application, it had refused because of a byelaw prohibiting swimming in the harbour – despite Conham River Park being some distance away.

“What we’re suggesting isn’t a new bathing site, local people have swum here for generations,” Blease said. “During the pandemic many people depended on swimming here for their wellbeing, and continue to do so to exercise, socialise, boost their mood and feel connected to nature.

“It’s rare for a city to have such a green and beautiful space that’s free to access and close to the city centre. Unfortunately there aren’t really any good options for outdoor swimming in Bristol. The only places that are regularly monitored for pollution are Henleaze lake, which is a private members-only lake with a very long waiting list, or you have to drive out to Clevedon.”

Swimming pollution alert

A pollution monitoring alert has been set up by the volunteers, to warn swimmers when the water is dangerously dirty and full of harmful pathogens coming from untreated sewage. They have also tested the water quality weekly in laboratories, over the past two summers.

Previously the council said it couldn’t support the application, because of the dangers of boats hitting swimmers, steep banks on the riverside, and the tidal nature of the Avon. But the petition appears to have sparked a change in policy, and the council administration is now actively working towards removing the byelaw.

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Speaking on behalf of the Labour group, Katja Hornchen, who represents Brislington East, said: “Conham River Park is a beautiful, wildlife-rich spot on the river Avon, with the opposite side in my ward. The people of Bristol have spoken — 5,200 of them — and they would like to use this river for swimming.

“Since the pandemic it has become a favourite outdoor space for the city’s residents. This river and the land around it belong to the Bristol City Council — to the people of Bristol. A very rare occurrence I’m told, as most riverbeds in the UK are privately owned and deny access.

“But we know there was over 151,000 hours of raw sewage discharged by Wessex Water last year. A lot of this undoubtedly made its way into the river Avon. Rather than this high an amount of discharge being an exception, the government has allowed the private water companies to not invest in proper infrastructure for growing cities, but rather to dump the sewage into our rivers and seas.

“However, I would like a note of caution, that the pollution in the river is not the only danger to swimmers, the riverbanks are steep, there are boats and the river is tidal. There is a lack of infrastructure to sustain the visitors, especially on the Eastwood Farm side, which causes stress to the wildlife and the local residents.

“We all know about the severe pressures on cities’ budgets and the lack of investment forced on us by austerity. But, it is my hope that lifting the ban would enable us to work with the local community groups in making the spot a safer place to swim, boat and enjoy a day out.”

The matter will now be considered by the mayor, Marvin Rees, and cabinet members who will respond to the petition.

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