New Hampstead Heath boss unfazed about diving headlong into heated ponds battle
15:00 15 July 2014
The new boss of Hampstead Heath speaks exclusively to reporter Tom Marshall about his demanding ‘step up’
If he was at all daunted about taking control of north London’s most beloved piece of land in the middle of an almighty row over its future, new Hampstead Heath boss Bob Warnock doesn’t show it.
Mr Warnock officially started in March as superintendent of the Heath following the departure of Simon Lee after 12 years.
Mr Lee, whose stewardship has been widely praised, chose to move on before work begins on the controversial ponds project, which is currently facing a legal challenge amid a significant uproar.
Perhaps Mr Lee didn’t want to be forever known as the man in charge when the Heath was “permanently disfigured” – in the words of the scheme’s vocal opponents – by diggers and dams.
But in his first interview since taking on the job, Mr Warnock seemed entirely unflustered by the situation.
“It’s a very challenging time to join the Heath, but it’s also an exciting time as well,” he told the Ham&High. “It’s a very vibrant community and part of my role is making sure we’re listening to the community, and working alongside the designers to incorporate, where we can, as much as possible to naturalise the scheme.”
The 48-year-old, who is also superintendent of Highgate Wood and Queen’s Park, has worked for the City of London Corporation for more than 20 years. He says natural opens spaces are his “passion” and his track record reflects this.
After studying rural resource management at university, he worked in similar roles for Surrey County Council and then the City.
He became superintendent of more than 1,000 acres belonging to the City south of the capital – Ashtead Common and West Wickham and Coulsdon Commons – but describes the Heath as a step up.
“They’re not as busy, with nothing like the seven million visits that the Heath receives, but are equally valued by their local communities and managed under similar acts of parliament,” he said.
His former job gave him experience of flood defence works.
A “river restoration project” at the Rye Brook in Ashtead involved building a natural-looking dam – and was met with near-universal approval.
His first few months as superintendent have involved “getting to know the patch”, producing 15 reports covering various aspects of Hampstead Heath’s management, and meeting the community groups who will no doubt scrutinise his every move.
He wants to continue the work of his predecessor in maintaining and improving the “rural feel” of the Heath, with the area surrounding Parliament Hill Lido one that is earmarked for a “softening of the edges”.
Other items on the to-do list include the launch of outdoor weddings in Golders Hill Park, plans to increase volunteering opportunities, and joining opposition to major developments on the edge of the Heath including Athlone House.
He added: “We’re managing the countryside four kilometres from Trafalgar Square – that’s an incredible responsibility and it’s a real honour to be given that opportunity.”