• Posted on: 12 August 2023
  • By: Susan
The Cam at Sheep's Green

Friends of the Cam campaign for an unpolluted river, against over-abstraction from it, and the unsustainable growth in buildings and infrastructure that impact on both. Designating short stretches of rivers may lead to some very limited local improvement of water quality, at the expense of water quality elsewhere. Friends of the Cam will be opposing the DBA application in the consultation for reasons given below. You can respond to the on-line  consultation here.

Friends of the Cam are part of a movement which recognises the major shifts in policy required to preserve our Earth as a planet that enables the flourishing of life. We want our river to be cleaned of all forms of pollution as soon as possible in ways that are compatible with the improvement of river systems across the country.  We believe that pushing for Designated Bathing Areas in rivers may delay water companies in meeting their current legal obligations to clean up rivers and reduce pressure on Defra and the Government to strengthen regulation. We have additional concerns about the proposal for a DBA at Sheep’s Green.


What is a DBA?

The Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) accepts applications to officially designate bathing places, most commonly at the seaside, which are then regularly monitored for E-coli and enterococci in the summer months, May to September, provided that the monitoring equipment functions. The local authority is required to make this information public and to publicise any finding of poor water quality at the site, advising people not to bathe. Many DBAs continue to have regular or intermittent poor water quality.

In the last three years DBAs have been granted for two rivers, the Wharfe in Ilkley, and Wolvercote Mill Stream in Oxford, where water quality remains poor. Others are in the process of applying and are now joined by an application for the Cam. The criteria have been tightened in the last few months. The applicant now has to show that there is an average of at least 100 bathers a day at the site and adequate toilet facilities (Defra, July 2023).

In the event of continuing poor water quality, Anglian Water is said to be required to clean up the sampled stretch of river. No time scale is mentioned. In the past Anglian Water’s business plan has encouraged them to illegally dump sewage in the river even though they have been fined substantial amounts (including £2.65 million in April, 2023 but by no means an isolated incident) when caught. Anglian Water continues to pollute, while handing out bonuses to their executives and dividends to shareholders (£92 million in 2022 alone). So, we see as questionable Cam Valley Forum’s and the City Council’s expectation that designation will lead to a cleaner stretch of the river. We believe it may slow down the clean-up of our rivers. Designation is supported by water companies because it localises pressure for improvement to a few areas and enables them to continue to avoid their obligations to river systems across the country within existing legislation.


What is proposed for the Cam?

Cam Valley Forum (CVF) is applying to Defra for a stretch of the Cam at Sheep’s Green to be designated as a DBA.


Who supports the application?

CVF are gathering support for their application which must be submitted by the end of October. It is supported by Cambridge City Council and Anglian Water.  CVF's website lists Anglian Water and Cambridge City Council as some of its partners, along with Cambridge Water which is licensed to take river destroying quantities of water from the river system. We are concerned about the potential conflicts of interest involved with environmental groups partnering with water companies and councils whose plans are destructive of the river.  Collaboration with Anglian Water, Cambridge Water, Cambridge City Council, and South Cambs District Council allows these agencies to ‘greenwash’ their activities.


Our further concerns

Everybody has a right to a clean river and every river a right to be free of pollution and over-abstraction. We are concerned that a DBA on the Cam may not be the best way the best way to achieve these goals. A river rights approach to cleaning up our rivers is about the full length of all rivers. Our concerns are shared with Friends of the Earth, CPRE - the Countryside Charity - (Cambs and Peterborough), Friends of Sheep’s Green and Lammas Land, and the Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve.

1. DBAs were designed for sea bathing.

While the idea of cleaning up bits of the sea has limited validity because of cross currents, the flow of rivers makes it impossible to have a clean river in one place only. Focusing on a single part of the river changes the nature of the river environment for everyone.

2. There are continuing risks to health

If DBA status is awarded, the Environment Agency will only monitor for E-coli and Enterococci. It does not monitor for other bacteria or for virus particles (such as the COVID virus which has been found in sewage outfalls), or for inorganic or organic laboratory, industrial and agricultural chemicals, all of which can impair the health of people and the flora and fauna of the river. CVF’s own data show phosphate levels in the upper reaches of the Cam which are up to seventy times higher than the maximum acceptable limit.

3. A DBA is likely to drive up visitor numbers

Defra’s requirement for ‘the site to be used by an average of at least 100 bathers a day during the bathing season (15 May to 30 September)’ is likely to push up numbers in what is a small site, also used by many canoeists and punts. Council support will inevitably involve publicity of Sheep’s Green as a visitor destination promoted by its ‘asset managers’, as for the Big Wheel on Parker’s Piece. The intention will be to draw more residents and tourists to the site thus adding pressure to expand car parking, food outlets and toilet facilities. A clean river along all its length would distribute bathers and their impact.

4. Sheep’s Green is an ecologically sensitive area

Sheep’s Green is next to Paradise Nature Reserve, immediately upstream, and to Coe Fen and Lammas Land immediately downstream. Even without increased infrastructure, a concentration of bathers in a sensitive environmental area where the river is narrow, where human activities include canoeing and punting, where the river is shared by ducks, swans, and water voles, and where there is little riverbank and no beach, is likely to be environmentally damaging. Other inland DBAs are mostly on artificial water bodies; of the two on rivers, the Wharfe at Ilkley has a beach and is significantly wider than the Cam.

5. Anglian Water already know what needs to be done

Anglian Water already tests for E-Coli and Enterococci on the Cam. Their Sheep’s Green data (published on the CVF website) report ‘elevated’ levels of E-Coli of >1000/ for 20 out of 26 readings up to July 2023, and elevated readings for Enterococci (400 and over) for 12 out of 26 readings. Anglian Water knows there are unacceptable levels of sewage pollutants in the Cam, downstream of the Haslingfield sewage works.

6. A DBA helps to greenwash Anglian Water

Anglian Water has form in greenwashing and was required to withdraw a misleading advertising campaign earlier this year. If, indeed, it does clean up a small stretch of river in a high profile, wealthy, iconic area of the city - possibly with financial assistance – this will not remove its legal obligations to clean up the river in other parts of the Cam in less wealthy, iconic or high-profile areas or across East Anglia.

7. Anglian Water is engaged in other environmentally damaging activities

Friends of the Cam supports the Save Honey Hill Campaign to prevent the move of a fully functioning sewage works from Northeast Cambridge to high quality Green Belt land, so that upwards of 8,000 new housing units can be built as part of Cambridge’s growth agenda. This will attract a subsidy of £227 millions of taxpayers’ money. The move is supported by Cambridge City Council who also stand to benefit from the land sale. The Environment Agency has already stated that local water resources cannot support the existing planned housing developments so any additional building should be vetoed. The more water that is abstracted from the Cam and other regional rivers, the more concentrated pollution becomes.



Designating short stretches of rivers may lead to some very limited local improvement of water quality, at the expense of water quality elsewhere. These micro-scale improvements give the impression of water improvements while water companies continue to pollute, continue to pay exorbitant dividends to their investors, and flout their legal obligations while maintaining very high levels of debt. Anglian Water has a debt of £6.6 billion. We should not be complicit in the water companies’ cynical attempt at greenwashing.

Friends of the Cam will be opposing the DBA application in the consultation. If you would like to register your view, the on-line  consultation can be found here.