Opinion: We will always provide affordable, subsidised, swimming

Karina Dostalova, chairman, Hampstead Heath Management Committee

Karina Dostalova, chairman, Hampstead Heath Management Committee - Credit: Archant

We are proud to be the guardians of Hampstead Heath, the most iconic of London’s open spaces, and a haven in the heart of the capital.

Although managed by the City Corporation, the Heath is a registered charity, funded by over £5m from the City Corporation every year, and revenue generated though services, grants and donations.

Its bathing ponds were originally created as reservoirs to meet London's demand for drinking water. Over time, some were repurposed for public swimming, and in the last decade swimming numbers doubled to a record 655,000 annual visits.

The Health and Safety Executive recently advised that with our rising numbers we should have more lifeguards, and we will be responding with just that.

Cold water swimming, in dark, opaque water can be dangerous. We believe that having more lifeguards will make the ponds more inclusive, and more people would feel safe and confident to swim there.

We want the ponds to be accessible for everyone, and ensuring that swimmers feel safe is a key part of achieving that aim. We feel providing more lifeguards would help with that.

We also have an important duty to care for our lifeguards, who are working under increasing pressure. On busy days they are managing crowds and incidents at the facilities, which can take them away from their crucial role of keeping people safe.

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We have a responsibility to make sure all areas of the Heath are safe and fairly funded, including our learning centres, play areas, sports facilities, and ecological work. But over a fifth of Hampstead Heath's budget is spent on running swimming facilities as visitor numbers soar and the swimming subsidy spirals.

Under 4 per cent of pond swimmers are paying the £2 charge, which is reinvested back into managing the facilities and helps pay for lifeguards.

Last year the City Corporation spent £747,000 running the swimming ponds, but income there only totalled £67,000.

This escalating subsidy is much greater than for any other user group.

The bathing ponds need to be run with a safer, more sustainable management model, like other areas of the Heath, to make sure the whole site remains an open space to be enjoyed for years to come.

That's why we are reviewing our swimming facilities now and consulting with swimmers.

We have already had some helpful discussions and we welcome all the comments the public has made.

We will always provide affordable, subsidised, swimming on the Heath. For centuries, the Heath has been used and enjoyed by local people and Londoners for a wide range of pursuits. We want to keep it this way.

Our dedicated staff and volunteers will continue to work with our local communities to make sure that the Heath is protected for current and future generations to enjoy.