What should the next 150 years hold for Hampstead Heath?

The City viewed from the top of Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath

The City viewed from the top of Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath - Credit: Polly Hancock

For 150 years Hampstead Heath has been preserved - for the public - overlooking London. 

When the Hampstead Heath Act was passed by parliament in 1871, the likes of Octavia Hill George Shaw-Lefevre and William Morris can scarcely have imagined how their campaigning efforts would keep the Heath safe from the expanding city over the coming decades. 

All these years later, the Heath remains, as local historian Helen Lawrence puts it, a "rural illusion" surrounded by suburban London.

But with the Heath under perhaps more pressure - from more visitors - than ever before, what should its stewards at the City of London Corporation (CoLC) be prioritising – and is the City still best-placed to be the organisation in charge of the Heath at all?

The CoLC managed the Heath since the 1989, when it was seen by many as a safer option than dividing responsibility between the neighbouring boroughs.

It over from the London Residual Body, which itself took the reins when the Greater London Council was dissolved three years earlier. Earlier still, the old London County Council ran the Heath. 

The 2020 imposition of compulsory charging to swim on the Heath caused many - not least in the Ham&High's letters pages - to wonder whether the CoLC is the right organisation for the job. 

John Weston with "How the Heath was saved" author Helen Lawrence. Picture: Diana von R Photography

John Weston with "How the Heath was saved" author Helen Lawrence. Picture: Diana von R Photography - Credit: Archant

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John Beyer chairs the Heath and Hampstead Society's Heath sub-committee. He told the Ham&High the society feels the "long-term stability, resources and expertise" the CoLC brings to managing the open space are invaluable.

"Whoever manages the Heath are going to come up against issues," he said.

The priority for the coming decades, he believes, will be sustainability. 

"The main issue is: How can we, and how are we going to keep it like it is for all of these visitors?"

He said protecting the environment and wildlife, while still having the Heath as a vital resource for mental and physical wellbeing for ever-more visitors, is the key challenge.

"It's vital we keep it so in 150 years time people can be reading the Ham&High and still see the same issues about the Heath being debated," he added.

"The pressures are many that we have talked about before - one being the sheer numbers of people and how to manage that. In a way, it's wonderful. At the same time we do have to think about how we're going to keep up with that and how do we protect the wildlife on the Heath. 

"I think a lot of it is down to education."

Helen Lawrence - who was involved with the Heath and Hampstead Society for many years under her married name Helen Marcus - wrote the book How the Heath Was Saved. 

She said she feels the CoLC's ability to stand up to those threatening to build on the Heath's fringes is a boon. 

"The whole point about Hampstead Heath is that it creates a rural illusion," she said.

"I have always felt: what's people's problem with the City? I always found them very good to deal with. The point is that they do have the money to fight off people - that's very important - whereas borough councils are always strapped for cash. 

"And looking back, many of those people who saved the Heath were City men."

The Mixed Bathing Pond at Hampstead Heath

The Mixed Bathing Pond at Hampstead Heath - Credit: Polly Hancock

Robert Sutherland Smith has been a vocal critic of the CoLC - particularly in relation to its management of the bathing ponds.

Citing revelations earlier this year that while budgets on the Heath were being cut, CoLC members continue to receive hospitality benefits including free meals, he said: "I would say the the [CoLC] really is very small - and I'm not sure it's big enough handle Hampstead Heath. It's no longer big. If it had been a private company it probably would have been swallowed up long before now.

"I think the whole thing has become an absolute mess." 

Mary Powell, the vice-chair of the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association, added: "This is a body which spends huge amounts of money wining and dining its own councillors but claims it can't afford to subsidise swimming. It's clearly a matter of what its priorities are."

As for the CoLC itself, Anne Fairweather - who chairs the Hampstead Heath, Highgate Wood and Queen's Park committee - said: "The CoLC is committed to conserving Hampstead Heath so it remains a premier London open space for the next 150 years.

“To this end we invest over £5m a year in the site, managing it as registered charity in an inclusive and democratic way, with local and user groups at the heart of the decision making process.

“The Heath is thriving under our stewardship and we are proud to be its guardians."

She thanked the "outstanding" staff and volunteers who have helped the Heath attract more visitors than ever before, and cited an outdoor education programme reaching "8,000 young people a year".