A record number of beaches and bathing spots in England and Wales reached the highest European standards for water quality this year, monitoring by the Environment Agency has shown.
Figures showed 86.2 per cent of bathing waters met the higher "guideline" standards set down by the European Commission in 2010 - a rise from 80.2 per cent last year and a huge increase from 1990 figures when less than a third of bathing sites made the grade.
Some 98 per cent of beaches and inland swimming areas met the mandatory minimum EC standards for water quality - down 0.6 per cent on last year's levels, data published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) showed.
The good results in 2009 came after two years in which heavy rain and flooding caused water quality to drop as pollutants were washed into the seas.
This year, 10 of the 493 beaches and bathing spots monitored failed to meet minimum standards, compared to seven out of 495 tested last year.
Some 425 beaches and swimming sites met the higher EC standard this year, sampling by the Environment Agency showed.
All 79 monitored beaches in Wales met the minimum standards, with 88.8 per cent reaching the higher "guideline" levels, while in England 97.6 per cent of bathing spots met the mandatory standard and 85.7 per cent reached the more stringent level.
Tougher standards come into force from 2015, but already more than 80 per cent of beaches in England and Wales are clean enough to meet the new measures, the Environment Agency said.
The agency's chief executive Paul Leinster said: "The number of bathing waters in England and Wales attaining the highest quality status has almost tripled over the last 20 years - over eight in 10 sites now meet the EU 'guideline' standard for water quality.
"The Environment Agency is working hard with others to drive improvements and tackle all sources of pollution alongside beach users, local authorities, farmers, land managers and water companies."