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Last Updated: Monday, 15 May 2006, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Does Blue Flag signal a good beach?
By Anna Browning
BBC News

Child on beach at Scarborough North Bay
At its launch in 1989 12 beaches qualified for a Blue Flag

The Blue Flag beach awards - ostensibly for cleanliness and quality of bathing water - have become almost as necessary to the average British sun seeker as windbreaks, 99 ice creams and factor 15.

But as Blue Flag reveals yet another successful year, with 25 more beaches awarded the standard in England and Wales than last year, does a Blue Flag beach really mean the best beach?

According to Blue Flag, we make 300 million trips to the coast each year.

The biggest users of beaches are women aged 35 to 44, who go walking on them.

And with the advance of the internet we are becoming even choosier about where we go.

The beach must be clean
Waste disposal bins must be available
An adequate number of lifeguards and/or life-saving equipment must be available
No industrial or sewage-related discharges may affect the beach area
Information about bathing water quality must be displayed

But compare the 120 Blue Flag beaches today - including Ainsdale in Merseyside - to the 12 that achieved the status at its UK launch in 1989 and it seems we have plenty to choose from.

Apparently now 78% of us recognise a Blue Flag as a mark of a quality beach. But what makes a good beach?

For this, you have to look at the criteria.

A Blue Flag beach has to pass 16 out of 20 bathing quality tests, undertaken by the Environment Agency from the beginning of May.

To pass it must have no more than 500 total coliforms (a bacteria) per 100 ml of water and no more than 100 faecal coliforms per 100 ml of water. These both indicate traces of human sewage.

But water quality is not all. A Blue Flag beach must have toilet facilities nearby and waste bins, for example.

It must also have recycling facilities and a water supply - all of which rule out many rural beaches.

Blue Flag logo
The Blue Flag runs across Europe, the Caribbean, South Africa and parts of the US

So if deserted beaches are for you, the Blue Flag is not an indication of quality.

Indeed, while Scotland will not reveal its Blue Flag results until 2 June, you can guarantee its award numbers will be no match for England and Wales.

It may have some of the UK's most beautiful beaches, but they are also among the most isolated.

And cold waters mean many are simply never used for bathing.

"While many of Scotland's beaches may fall outside the parameters of the award criteria for Blue Flag awards, Scotland is home to the UK's longest coastline and also to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world," said a spokeswoman for Visit Scotland.
I have spent a lot of time travelling to British beaches and I cannot tell which have the Blue Flag and which have not
Simon Calder, travel journalist

"It doesn't apply to rural beaches, it's really for resorts," said Peter Gibson of Blue Flag, referring to the award.

"If a beach doesn't have a blue flag it doesn't mean it is definitely a bad beach."

Even so he urged them to get involved. "It is a programme, not just an award," he said.

"If you are pushing yourself as being as a very lovely resort then there is no better award.

"People know there's some guarantee of cleanliness and safety."

Another obstacle for many beaches is simply money.

For example, Blue Flag beaches spend 400 hours a week removing rubbish from their sands.

Pollution is harder to deal with in the UK than say Greece or Spain, simply because the sun itself can kill a lot of bacteria.

Investment is perhaps one reason why the concentration of Blue Flag beaches are in the south west of England and Wales.

"It is a question of resources," said Peter Gibson.

These are areas that rely heavily on tourism and so invest in their beaches, he said.

"What we are offering is the carrot, rather than the stick."

Best beaches

Simon Calder, the Travel Editor of The Independent, believes Britain's best beaches are found in the Western Isles in Scotland.

He praised them for having the "purest, clearest" water as well as "dramatic seascapes", adding that they were "probably the best in the world".

"If you ignore the temperatures, you will find probably everything you would look for in a beach, from the quality of the sand to the pure, beautiful clarity of the water," said Mr Calder.

Assessing the Blue Flag system, he said anything that persuaded people to make beaches better was a good thing.

However, he warned that even if a beach did have a Blue Flag did not mean it was perfect.

Mr Calder said: "It [the Blue Flag] is something to strive towards, it is one element to be brought in.

"From a personal point of view, I have spent a lot of time travelling to British beaches and I cannot tell which have the Blue Flag and which have not."

He said safety was the priority for those parents going to the beach with their children but added facilities were also an important factor.

Do you have any pictures of Blue Flag beaches? If so, you can send them to yourpics@bbc.co.uk or text them to 07725 100 100

Beach is named 'cleanest in UK'
01 Apr 05 |  Dorset

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