BOB HALL: Why managing the Heath is a more complex task nowadays

PUBLISHED: 15:03 10 January 2007 | UPDATED: 10:30 07 September 2010

IN the first half of this year, the major task for everyone involved in the management of Hampstead Heath is to bring the new strategic plan for the Heath into being. It had become clear that the existing management plan in its present form – a statement

IN the first half of this year, the major task for everyone involved in the management of Hampstead Heath is to bring the new strategic plan for the Heath into being.

It had become clear that the existing management plan in its present form - a statement of policies on particular topics, in most cases with some explanation - is not now sufficient for the task of managing the Heath in today's context.

This is because the City of London, as managers, now has a much greater understanding of the complex interactions between the various elements of the Heath and the influences which determine how the Heath behaves.

The Heath is a living entity, the management of which is, crucially and rightly, affected by the necessarily unpredictable actions of all those who use it, and by various statutory requirements.

When you start looking at ideas for the next 20-50 years, you realise that this remarkable place is not susceptible to the kind of regimentation that a 'plan' in the traditional sense might suggest.

The initial discussions have thrown up a series of challenges which go the heart of questions like: What sort of Heath do we want? How should new activities be introduced in such a way as does not damage or destroy the natural aspect of the space? What are the principles which should govern how development external to the Heath should be assessed? Do the various buildings on the Heath adequately fulfil their function?

Many of these questions open up new and, in some cases, unexpected areas of enquiry, but which nevertheless have to be considered.

What is now clear is that the process of establishing a Heath plan is not just a "once in every 10 years" episode. It is an iterative developmental activity. It requires the creation of a framework which sets out the overall vision for the Heath, in which long-term objectives are defined.

These in turn lead to the establishment of the strategies which are best suited to achieving those objectives, the prioritisation of which needs to be reviewed regularly, bearing in mind changing user patterns, available finance and knowledge.

The document currently being prepared does not deal with day-to-day management issues, and will be followed by detailed topic papers.

It's a challenge, and we look forward to receiving all the comments which will arise from the consultation process.

In the meantime, whilst we fret about these issues, Nature goes her own distinctive way.

Winter is usually a quiet time, as animals and plants rest before Spring. But, as visitors to the Heath have seen - witness the letters page of this newspaper in the last week or so - the mild weather this winter has disturbed the usual cycles of the flora and fauna on the Heath.

While the summer drought had a devastating and unsightly effect on the horse chestnuts, causing them to drop their leaves much earlier than usual, the warm early winter months have confused other trees. Many oaks and willows did not lose their leaves fully until late December. Flowers and plants have also started work earlier than usual.

Some of the Heath's regular winter visitors have also been very late this year. And less than a fortnight ago, Red Admiral butterflies and bumble bees were seen.

This change to traditional climate patterns is a real issue, not just for the Heath but for open spaces across Britain. The Met Office forecasts 2007 to be the warmest year on record, so this will be a considerable challenge for the Heath.

Everyone from the City of London wishes all readers and all visitors to the Heath a peaceful and successful 2007. We hope that the Heath will continue to be a welcoming and stimulating place to visit.

Bob Hall is Chairman of the Hampstead Heath Management Committee

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