In what is being regarded as a test case, a private beachowner has issued proceedings against South West Water in the high court, claiming £25,000 annual costs of cleaning up Croyde Bay in Devon and £1 million loss of profit.
His solicitor, Leigh Day & Co, believes the case could have huge repercussions for councils, letting them sue for clean up costs up to six years after spending was incurred.
There are no figures on the money councils spend cleaning Britain's 435 designated beaches. But Torbay BC told LGC it spent about £300,000 a year on the management of its 23 beaches, including cleaning.
'You are talking about considerable sums which could potentially be claimed against water companies', said Leigh Day senior partner Martyn Day.
The firm says councils deemed in law to occupy land above the high water mark could sue. It is also investigating whether a council could have a case under provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
Louise Ellman, Lancashire CC leader and long time campaigner against pollution on Blackpool and Fylde beaches, said councils should watch the Croyde Bay case with interest. 'It took us three years to conclude our intensive campaign against North West Water and persuade the water company to build a waste treatment plant', she said.
'If we had the means of taking legal action open to us, we might have resolved the case much sooner'.
The Tidy Britain Group, which makes awards to the cleanest beaches, said it was taking an interest in the case.
'A water company can rightly say that a beach meets with European Community standards but that doesn't mean sewage can't be washed up', a spokeswoman said.