Ilkley councillors criticise Bathing Water Status bid amid concerns River Wharfe is dangerous

Ilkley's three Bradford district councillors have expressed concern that the ongoing campaign to get the Wharfe designated for 'safe swimming' fails to acknowledge the river's poor safety record.

The River Wharfe at Ilkley
The River Wharfe at Ilkley

The Ilkley Clean Rivers Group have previously applied to the government for a stretch of the Wharfe popular with families to be given Bathing Water Status - which would make it the first British river to be awarded the designation.

The DEFRA status would mean that the river would be monitored for pollution levels and the water quality regularly tested. DEFRA has now opened a public consultation before making a final decision.

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Yet Ilkley's three councillors and other town residents have argued that the campaign ignores the fact that regardless of water quality, the river itself is inherently dangerous due to its strong currents, fluctuating depths, hidden drops and other hazardous natural features.

There have been several incidents in recent years in which children swimming in the stretch have had to be rescued after getting into difficulty, and in the mid-1990s two eight-year-old girls drowned in the Wharfe at nearby Arthington.

Upstream, swimming in the Wharfe on the Bolton Abbey estate is forbidden and police regularly patrol the banks at Burnsall in summer, as safety incidents are common when the river is fast-flowing after heavy rainfall.

After a difficult summer in which large crowds of youths descended on the pebble beaches in Ilkley during hot weather to hold 'lockdown parties', councillors Mike Gibbons, Anne Hawkesworth and Kyle Green also fear that promoting the river for swimming could lead to further issues with anti-social behaviour.

In a joint statement issued on Monday, the three councillors said: "At the moment we are being asked by DEFRA to give our views on an application for 'Bathing Water Status' for the River Wharfe in the Ilkley area. This consultation is very specifically about Bathing Water Status alone.

"Much talk about cleaning up the river is going on; we believe this is an effort to merge this topic in people's minds with the Bathing Water Status application, but they are different issues.

"I'm sure we can all agree that cleaning up the River Wharfe is a worthy and positive course of action, but let's not confuse the two aims.

"We are in fact being asked to promote and encourage bathing. All rivers are dangerous and the River Wharfe especially so. Over the years there has been loss of life and 'near-misses' in the Wharfe on many, many occasions.

"The Wharfe contains currents and whirlpools and has pollutants both natural and man-made flowing downstream through the Ilkley stretch.

"Should we really give a green light to this swimming status and then potentially expect others to deal with the resultant problems and often serious consequences?

"We have always had visitors to Ilkley and have welcomed responsible tourism.

"During this summer, the use of Ilkley’s riverside by visitors has been beyond breaking point. Bathing Water Status would only make the position worse. There is little prospect of facilities being improved for visitors, and so the problems of which we are all too aware would only magnify - for example by reducing the adjacent woodlands and cemetery to being an even bigger informal public lavatory, as we have seen, with human faeces, used lavatory paper and soiled sanitary products being abandoned there.

"There have been alarming and very serious implications on law and order, substance/alcohol abuse, broken glass/rubbish and parking/road blockage problems.

"Our 999 and district council services have enough to deal with, without us adding to risks and anti-social behaviour, not to mention the enormous costs involved.

"We do not want or need this behaviour at our riverside, let alone encourage it.

"We urge concerned residents to take part in the DEFRA consultation which can be accessed online. The deadline is October 2.

"Our judgement is not to support the application for bathing water status and we urge the town council to take a similar stance. We need to consider safety first."

The councillors' concerns are echoed by Ilkley resident Steve Singleton, an experienced sailor.

He said: "Those reported rescued or lost while swimming or playing in the middle Wharfe in the last seven years, between Ilkley and Grassington, ranged in age from five to 18 years old. None of them were mature and experienced 'wild' swimmers, like some of those who belong to the campaign group.

"Many of those incidents were in Ilkley; which is no surprise to me as an experienced Wharfe river walker and fisherman.

"My entire priority is saving innocent lives, and it is sobering to note how most of these incidents also put rescuers who were members of the public in jeopardy, including the harrowing story of how five lives were put at risk in an incident in 2016 near the Swing Bridge in Ilkley.

"it is already the case that the application is being translated by some as meaning it is ‘safe to swim’; which has serious potential to give visitors a false sense of security in a river that has clear and present dangers to life.

"In common with any significant river, the middle Wharfe has a mix of waterfalls, weirs, bridge supports, acceleration zones, rapids, deep pools, shallow tails and margins, hidden

currents and holes, islets, underwater obstructions, waterborne debris and uncertain underfoot conditions, plus the risk of cold water shock.

"In addition, the Wharfe is one of the fastest rising rivers in the country, where it is not uncommon to get surges in level due to rain in the Dales, that threaten the unaware, sweeping some waders off their feet and surprised or weaker swimmers downstream.

"We need to stop this runaway train, where ‘clean river’ and “bathing water status’ are being conflated, before the Wharfe takes further victims. For children in trouble and would-be rescuers in the Wharfe, ‘it might as well be clean’ will not be their top priority."

A statement from the Ilkley Clean Rivers Group read: "We are campaigning to make the River Wharfe safer, not more dangerous.

"We know that people swimming and children paddling in the River Wharfe at Ilkley each summer are at risk of serious illness from E.coli and other bugs in the raw sewage which is discharged regularly into the river.

"If bathing status is awarded it will stop raw sewage being dumped in the river, and the authorities will also be obliged to put in place other safety measures including signage and life-saving equipment, just as you see at designated bathing spots at the seaside.

"This would help everyone that uses the river to enjoy it safely. Ilkley Clean River Group's concern is the safety and wellbeing of all residents and visitors to one of Yorkshire’s favourite beauty spots."

Drownings and near-misses in the Wharfe at Ilkley

June 2018 - firefighters taking part in a training exercise at Ilkley witnessed two girls, aged around eight, getting into difficulty in the Wharfe at Crom Wheel and helped to rescue them. They heard screams and gave first aid to the children after a member of the public managed to pull them from the water. Around 100 people were congregating in the area at the time.

Ilkley watch commander Alex Watson said: “This part of the river can look particularly inviting because it is shallow around the edges but you can quickly drift into the middle and where the river bends there are some strong currents underneath which could drag a small child away.”

July 2017 - Ilkley businesswoman Rachel Wilkinson was walking her dog beside the Wharfe when she saw a teenage boy swimming with a group of friends being swept away by the current before he was rescued by a man believed to be his father. Mrs Wilkinson said the boy's screams were 'terrible to hear' and he was fully submerged several times before the rescuer reached him.

June 2016 - two boys, aged around eight and nine, got into difficulty while swimming near the Swing Bridge. Their father attempted to rescue them but was struggling until two other men swam out to help him. One witness believed the depth of the water was greater than normal because of floods the previous Christmas.

August 2013 - 27-year-old Simon Wood, from Otley, was nominated for a bravery award after rescuing a five-year-old girl who was close to drowning and described as 'lifeless' when she was pulled from the water while on a day out with her grandparents. Mr Wood successfully gave first aid and managed to revive her.

1997 - In the summer of 1997, the deaths of two children in the Wharfe at Sandy Beaches, near Arthington, ended in a court case. Two eight-year-old girls from Leeds, Charlea Fox and Jasmine Neville, drowned while playing a 'Baywatch' game while the 41-year-old woman looking after them smoked cannabis and drank with two men. The stretch of river appears calm but has hollows scoured out of the bank and tight bends. They could not swim well and were not wearing armbands.

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