Calls for Heath to receive 'more funding, not less' amid budget cuts anger

Highgate, as seen from Hampstead Heath on Sunday, March 22, 2020.

Hampstead Heath has seen more visitors than ever during the pandemic. - Credit: André Langlois

"Unacceptable" cuts to budgets on Hampstead Heath have been slammed by members of a Heath committee.

A decision made by the City of London Corporation (CoLC) chamberlain to cut budgets by £1.6m was heavily criticised this week by the Heath committee, particularly in light of more people than ever before using the green space amid the pandemic.

CoLC figure Karina Dostalova even said the combination of a 12 per cent cut to the Heath, Highgate Wood and Queen's Park superintendent's budget with a 50pc cut to the cyclical works programme (CWP) was "outrageous". 

The CWP covers repairs, maintenance and cleaning. CoLC officers said the cut was mostly "due to Covid-19 which has impacted on the CWP project delivery" in the current financial year, and that some of the money unspent during the first lockdown would still be used, but was accounted for in previous figures.

At least one vacant job working in Highgate Wood will not be filled, while further restructuring is ongoing as Heath bosses handle the funding cut. The plan was proposed in a report to the CoLC committee covering the three open spaces on January 7. 

Members of the committee were concerned the unprecedented use of the Heath meant it needed more funding, not less.

The 12pc cut had previously been approved, but as its impact will be felt in conjunction with the works programme cut, the budget of which has been reduced from £1.4m to £740,000, the committee said it should be opposed. 

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Heath superintendent Bob Warnock confirmed any urgent health and safety works were included in the proposed budgets. 

Ms Dostalova, the deputy chair of the committee, added: "I find this reduction in budget outrageous and unacceptable. I think £1.6m is absolutely unworkable. I find the excuse of Covid is unacceptable. Covid should mean we get more budget with the increased amount of footfall we are seeing and the increased use and increased importance to London that the Heath brings."

She added: "This is a clear case of the left hand not talking to the right hand."

Karina Dostalova is stepping down as chairman, Hampstead Heath Park Committee in June.

Karina Dostalova is stepping down as chairman, Hampstead Heath Park Committee in June. - Credit: Archant

Her comments were echoed by others at the meeting, including John Beyer of the Heath and Hampstead Society, who attends as a co-opted member. He said: "The Heath and other open spaces have become the lifeline for people escaping from Covid and getting mental relief. They're not just an add-on, but essential to community life. It's the wrong time to be doing this."

To find the 12pc savings, CoLC is reviewing fees and charges, cutting a staff member at Highgate Wood and looking to bring in licensing schemes for dog walking, personal training and forest schools on the Heath.

A second "Affordable Art Fair" a year is also proposed, while there is currently a moratorium on hiring new staff. Mr Warnock also said that should lockdown restrictions continue, filling the 12pc budget hole could become difficult.

The new chair of the CIty of London's Hampstead Heath, Highgate Wood, and Queen's Park committee. Pi

Anne Fairweather, chair of the CIty of London's Hampstead Heath, Highgate Wood, and Queen's Park committee. Picture: City of London Corporation - Credit: City of London Corporation

In a subsequent meeting of the CoLC's resource allocation committee, Jeremy Mayhew reassured officials that if the pandemic continued to impact on income on the Heath, there was room to change tack and compensate budgets. 

Mr Mayhew said: "If, during the year, pressures arise because of income loss caused by the pandemic, then we will take that into account."

He said it was "legitimate" that such potential pressures could be factored in. He said the CWP budget issue was "a diversion" and always likely to go up and down.

Anne Fairweather, who chairs the Heath committee, said she was "reassured" by this, but called for the CoLC to consider how best to allocate resources to ensure that areas where staff had been stretched throughout the pandemic were given enough support.

It is understood that the CWP budget is already being revisited. In the first meeting, Bob Warnock confirmed that, if necessary, Heath bosses could "go back to the city surveyor" if urgent works became necessary.

At the Heath meeting, Colin Buttery - the CoLC's director of open spaces - said: "We had financial pressures on the city back in 2019. The backdrop of the pandemic has meant we have had to make in-year changes to the budget and now the capital and revenue programme going forward will need to produce balanced budgets which take into account the pressures from Covid."

READ MORE: Digging into the history of Hampstead Heath

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