HSE ‘could close’ Hampstead Heath bathing ponds without new lifeguards while swimmers slam plan for compulsory charges

Karina Dostalova said the City of London Corporation was 'looking to move to compulsory charging' fo

Karina Dostalova said the City of London Corporation was 'looking to move to compulsory charging' for the Heath bathing ponds. Picture: Sam Volpe - Credit: Archant

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) could ban swimming on the Heath “at any time” if bosses don’t show “meaningful engagement” with safety advice it has given.

Lifeguard at the Ladies' Pond

Lifeguard at the Ladies' Pond - Credit: Archant

That was the warning from Karina Dostalova, chair of the City of London Corporation's (CoLC) Heath consultative committee, on Tuesday night at a meeting of the Heath Swimmers' Forum. At the meeting a number of swimming groups opposed introducing compulsory charging for swimming in the ponds without first trying other options.

Ms Dostalova had told the assembled swimmers: "We can't just divert funding from the rest of the Heath to the swimmers. The HSE is a major aspect of this for us, but so is sustainability. We are looking to move to compulsory compliance with the charges that were established in 2005."

Asked whether there was a risk the HSE could stop swimming facilities operating if an inspector returned and found advice - to increase lifeguard numbers - had not been heeded, a CoLC official said: "That's not an idle threat, that's just the way these things work."

She added: "Prohibition is an option available to them. We have to show we are taking this seriously."

Vociferous speakers at the meeting of the Hampstead Heath Swimmers' Forum. Picture: Sam Volpe

Vociferous speakers at the meeting of the Hampstead Heath Swimmers' Forum. Picture: Sam Volpe - Credit: Archant

Heath Superintendent Bob Warnock - the officer in charge of managing the Heath - said the main issue was the duty of care towards lifeguards. He said: "There's an impact on their lives. We are obliged to put some processes in place to help them."

Swimming groups objected to the discussion around safety being linked to consideration of making the charges for using the bathing ponds - in place since 2005 -compulsory, and there were calls for the CoLC to first try to put resources into encouraging more voluntary payment and donations.

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They also slammed the speed of decision-making - with changes set to be finalised by March 11.

Retaining the existing arrangements - but modernising the technology used - remains an option on the table, the CoLC said.

United Swimmers Association chair Robert Sutherland Smith said: "It seems to me the obvious desire of the CoLC to cut costs has always been there. What we are talking about here is process, not principle and we really ought to talk about principle. I don't think people will take kindly to imposing compulsory charging."

Jeremy Watson, treasurer of the Highgate Men's Pond Association (HMPA) cited improvements to donations and the usability of ticket machines and said: "In terms of making it easier to give money, it seems there are some pretty obvious things that need to be tried."

Nicky Mayhew, co-chair of the Kenwood Ladies' Pond Association (KLPA) said swimmers cared for lifeguards, but said: "I would argue at this stage, the increased lifeguarding is a different issue."

Afterwards, she added: "We are concerned that the cost of this is being weaponised by the CoLC to justify massive increases in charges for swimming. Setting a timetable of less than a month for consultation on complex proposals with a variety user groups is completely unrealistic."

The KLPA called for the CoLC to "encourage rather than force swimmers to pay". Ms Mayhew added: "We argue that the City has consistently failed to make it easy to pay for swimming."

Others called on the CoLC to see swimming's popularity as a boon. Edward Johnson, a regular swimmer at the Men's Pond, told the Ham&High: "The whole concept of protecting the space as a free space is being washed away by an organisation that can afford to take their time, They've an opportunity to show how they value open spaces, nature, and what's proven to be a great resource for mental health."

Ahead of the meeting - part of a review into arrangements - the CoLC revealed that the Heath ponds cost £747,000 to run in 2019, but generated only £67,000 in income A follow-up meeting will be held on February 11, again at Parliament Hill Staff Yard.