Hampstead Heath ponds charges: Swimmers ‘consider options’ and slam ‘charade’ consultation after decision

Protests outside of the Guildhall over introducing compulsory charges for swimming on Hampstead Heat

Protests outside of the Guildhall over introducing compulsory charges for swimming on Hampstead Heath. Picture: Sam Volpe - Credit: Archant

Hampstead Heath swimmers have promised the fight against compulsory charges to take a dip in the Heath’s ponds is not over.

The Hampstead Heath Mixed Pond. Picture: Joshua Thurston

The Hampstead Heath Mixed Pond. Picture: Joshua Thurston - Credit: Archant

Last week, the City of London Corporation’s (CoLC) Hampstead Heath management committee resolved to go against the advice from its own consultative committee and vote through officer recommendations which mean, from May 2, visitors will have to pay to swim – and charges will double, too.

Swimming groups and that committee had both argued for a measured approach which would see the CoLC improve efforts to make voluntary payment easier, but members of Wednesday’s committee were not comfortable “indulging” the swimmers.

Afterwards, Nicky Mayhew, co-chair of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA) said: “I thought the facilitator made a fair summary. I felt after that there was very little said of the fact that the swimmers had made strong representations or that the consultative committee had been persuaded by them.

“The fact that was the view of the consultative committee people who understand the Heath and have it and its stakeholders and communities at heart, and it was ignored, that surprised me.”

The Hampstead Heath Mixed Pond. Picture: Joshua Thurston

The Hampstead Heath Mixed Pond. Picture: Joshua Thurston - Credit: Archant

Nicky added: “The conclusion was never in any doubt. We came to it in good faith but I don’t believe they did. My feeling is that the whole consultation process was a charade.

“Now, we are looking at what our response might be. The City says it has secured the future of the ponds, but I have yet to see anyone outside of the City who believes them.”

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She said she would like to see the plans suspended “out of generosity of spirit” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Swimming groups also said in a collective statement that they think the City was “failing in its mission to be physically and financially accessible by pricing people out of swimming in an attempt to monetise the popularity of ‘wild’ swimming”.

Mike Sands, who chairs the Mixed Pond Association, added: ‘We surveyed user group members as part of the consultation and found that while 75% of them are willing to pay the current charges, nearly 70% said increased charges would limit their ability to swim. We asked the City to work with us cooperatively on managing change, but they seem determined to be heavy-handed.”

Outside of the meeting which saw hearty protests, ladies’ pond swimmer Barbara Massey said: “It just feels like somebody has besmirched our pond. They have not understood.”

Another, Mary Powell, told this newspaper: “I felt like I wasn’t represented at all at that meeting. They didn’t talk about how the City makes it very difficult to pay currently.

“I really feel for the frontline Heath staff who will have to implenent this. Who has thought throught the risks to the lifeguards?

At the meeting on Wednesday March 11, the Heath and Hampstead Society’s John Beyer was one of few to speak in favour of retaining a voluntary system, at least for 2020.

He said the society’s position was: “That is a better option because it is moving forward towards a better charging system.”

He added: “We believe everyone should pay. The difference is how you get there – whether by persuasion or by compulsion.”

But others, including CoLC Alderman Gregory Jones disagreed. Alderman Jones said: “The starting point is the health and safety advice. We can just wait in case there’s another accident.

“I just don’t think more money from the City should be spent on comms.

“If they [swimmers] don’t understand self-policing, I don’t think we should paying public money to convert people who are not regular swimmers. I also fear I do not respond well to underlying threats.”

In a statement, committee chair Karina Dostalova said: “These changes will ensure our swimming facilities remain safe and stay inclusive as part of a sustainable mode of management so they can be enjoyed for years to come. We recognise the Heath’s ponds bring many benefits to those who visit and take time out from busy lives.”

Ms Dostalova added that “Hampstead Heath is thriving under our stewardship” and playihng “a vital role in the community”.

The CoLC said the new charges, £2.40 for concessions, £4 for adults, and a package of freezes to season tickets and free swims for the over 60s and under 16s early in the mornings would keep the ponds accessible. Implementing the new charges will be discussed at a swim forum meeting in April.