Blind swimmer behind legal challenge fights 'exclusion' of disabled
- Credit: Polly Hancock
A registered blind swimmer says compulsory charging at the Hampstead Heath bathing ponds is “destroying” its inclusive community.
Ann Griffin, 57, has taken the first step towards a legal challenge alongside the Kenwood Ladies' Pond Association (KLPA) against the City of London Corporation (CoLC) for introducing swimming fees last year.
Their claim that the “exclusionary” charges are unlawful is set out in a “letter before action”, which precedes any application for a judicial review.
Single adult tickets recently rose by 1.25% from £4 to £4.05, but six-month season tickets for concessions jumped by 21% from £33 to £40.11 – which Ann and the KLPA say disproportionately disadvantages disabled people and those on lower incomes.
The CoLC denies that the charges are unlawful and says charging for access to sporting or recreational facilities is a longstanding practice.
But Ann, from Tufnell Park, told the Ham&High: “For three years I swam at the ponds and they were a total sanctuary when I was suffering with losing my sight and losing my work, and I did that because it was free.
“As soon as the prices came in that meant I could no longer have that mental health relief, and now by bringing in these extra charges that payment is even more difficult.
“I've relied on an anonymous donor to buy my season ticket because people in my position simply can't afford to pay out the money for a season ticket.”
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Ann described the ponds as the only place where she can feel “totally free” – but said this is under threat by “ever-increasing financial barriers”.
“As a disabled and blind person, moving around is incredibly challenging, incredibly stressful and being able to swim is so liberating," she said.
“It's the best relief in terms of mental health and physical health and it's the only way I've really been able to survive in a series of traumas of losing my sight, losing my work, divorcing, and raising three children.”
Ann and the KLPA say increased charges for swimming, agreed in February, are discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010 and interfere with swimmers’ human rights.
They called for a return to voluntary charging priced at £2 for adults and £1 for concessions, which David Gilbert, chair of the Highgate Men's Pond Association (HMPA), also backed.
“The HMPA believes the new charging regime is discriminatory, unjust, and will socially cleanse the pond, destroying its unique atmosphere and bringing to an end almost two centuries of freely-accessible bathing on the Heath,” he said.
“The refusal of the Corporation to engage seriously with improvements to the existing voluntary payment system, which we know many of our members support, only exacerbates this.”
Tulip Siddiq, the Hampstead and Kilburn MP, said: “The reopening of the Hampstead Heath bathing ponds has been long awaited by many keen swimmers in the community, who have missed this wonderful natural facility during lockdown.
“However, there is much disappointment that the plan to impose compulsory charging has been resurrected, despite opposition from locals and the hardship cause by the pandemic.
“I have repeatedly raised concerns about these charges with park managers and I am calling for a rethink so that no one is excluded from accessing the ponds.”
Hornsey and Wood Green MP Catherine West, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Swimming, said she had always supported voluntary charges and had repeatedly raised concerns over access for regular swimmers on low incomes.
“As Londoners we don’t have access to the sea or some of the more secluded rivers and lakes that rural areas enjoy.
“But we do have the Ponds and they are precious and should be open to all – nobody should be priced out of the great outdoors," Ms West said.
A spokesperson for the City of London Corporation said: “We’re sorry to hear of Ms Griffin’s concerns and have been in contact with her to try and address these.
“The Hampstead Heath charity is providing concessions for swimming and a season ticket at the bathing pond is available for as little as £1.46 a week
“The Heath’s swimming facilities are accessible to people of all abilities and backgrounds and we subsidised swimming at the Bathing Ponds by nearly £600,000 in 2020-21.
“These charges are reinvested to ensure that affordable, safe and sustainable access to outdoor swimming is available to as many people as possible for generations to come.
“We offer a comprehensive support scheme including free swimming for under 16s and over 60s. In addition, concessions apply to people in receipt of state benefits.”