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Swimmers on Hampstead Heath are up in arms over plans to introduce compulsory charges to use the historic bathing ponds.

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City of London Corporation officials held talks to abandon the “honesty box” policy on Tuesday (March 13), after claiming that thousands of visitors are refusing to pay the £1 or £2 voluntary entrance fees.

A final decision has been put back, but the news sparked fury among regular swimmers who branded the charges unjust and claimed they could ruin the unique atmosphere at the ponds.

David Halpern, a QC from Hampstead Garden Suburb, said: “It would be a very great shame. It’s the nearest we have to something natural, it’s like being in the country. It would change the whole atmosphere.”

The 55-year-old, who has swum in the ponds for six years, added: “You get everyone down here, from High Court judges to the bouncer of the Kray brothers, and to make the charges compulsory would just change it.”

Birdwatcher Bill Oddie backed the swimmers’ complaints and said: “If we were talking about the general atmosphere, it’s nice that it’s voluntary.

“It’s the same with a lot of nature reserves where you don’t have to pay an entrance fee, but if you enjoy the experience you pay something.

“That’s not a bad example to set for the rest of the world and I think it would be a shame to change that here.”

Voluntary fees were introduced in 2005 after the City of London threatened to close the ponds to plug a hole in the Heath budget. The scheme got off to a sticky start when a £20,000 collection machine was glued shut by a protesters and Heath authorities claim they still collect just £25,000 a year despite 180,000 annual visitors.

The fresh row was sparked when the City released a report setting out its £1million plans to install disabled ramps, stalls, improve sunbathing facilities and introduce compulsory charges.

Works could be carried out when planned construction starts on the Heath dams in spring 2014, according to City officials.

Robert Sutherland-Smith, of the United Swimmers Association, said “What are they charging for? There is no roof which needs maintaining and no central heating. This is not a normal swimming pool.

“You go there hang your clothes up and hope no-one steals them, so what the hell are they charging anyone for?

“You don’t get charged for walking your dog or walking on the Heath and the ponds have been there for a very, very long time.”

But marketing consultant Mark Barclay, from Constantine Road in Hampstead, said he would not object to the new charge.

“If it were the only way of keeping the lifeguards on, then I support that, but there is the tradition going back 100 years where it has been free.”

Michael Welbank, chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Hampstead Heath Committee, said: “We are at the very start of this project and full consultation will be undertaken on any proposals which come forward.”

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