Heath ponds dam project gets green light

Conservationsts have vowed to fight on after the controversial ponds dam scheme has been given the go ahead by planners.

After a heated three-hour meeting last night, which saw hundreds of protesters cram into the town hall, members of Camden’s development control committee voted by six to two with one abstention in favour of the City of London Corporation scheme.

Their decision, which provoked jeers from the public gallery, flew in the face of a 12,465-strong petition objecting to the City of London Corporation project and over 1,000 letters of objection.

It also ignored passionate pleas from deputations urging them to reject the two year project which they said would “vandalise” the Heath and cause “permanent and irreparable damage” to its character.

Councillors accepted the argument from Heath managers City of London Corporation that the two years of engineering work was required by reservoir laws to prevent the dams collapsing and triggering a fatal flood if a “catastrophic” storm hits.

They were told that if the ponds were to burst their banks in such a residential area, there would be a serious loss of life and damage to surrounding property.

Marc Hutchinson, chairman of The Heath and Hampstead Society, which has been leading the protest for the last three years, said after the meeting they would appeal to environment secretary Elizabeth Truss to intervene by exempting the ponds from laws designed for reservoirs.

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He said: “We are very disappointed at the outcome. We won’t give up yet. We will ask the environment secretary to intervene now and reclassify them as ponds not reservoirs. This is the last course of action open to us.”

He criticised the outcome as being due to “confusion” among committee members over the interpretation of risk factor, which varied greatly throughout the reports.

He said “It was a considerable exaggeration. You wouldn’t design a nuclear power station to this level of safety,” he added.

The work, which it is estimated will run until October 2016, is due to start in March.

Planning officer John Markwell presented the ten-strong committee with a detailed slideshow of the scheme to build a huge new dam in the Catchpit area, raise existing dams by up to 18ft, transform landscape around other ponds including building an island at the model boating pond and redesign changing rooms.

They heard it would see heavy construction across the Heath and the closure of the swimming ponds at various times.

Robert Mann, from Aecom, the engineering firm appointed by Camden to carry out an independent review of the application, told the meeting that at present the dams were “grossly deficient.”

To shouts of “rubbish” and “nonsense” from the public gallery, he said that the risk to life and property at between 1 in ten and 1 in 100 was “clearly in the unacceptable zone.”

His report concluded that the works would take that risk into the “acceptable” zone and were “necessary and proportionate in relation to the reduction in risk achieved.”

It said the “the need to mitigate the potential loss of life from dam failure is considered to clearly outweigh any harm to the Metropolitan Open Space.”

But speakers against the scheme, who were given an extension in the time they could speak by the council, given the “strength of feeling”, said this risk was “exaggerated.”

Heath user Brian Simpson described the scheme as “permanently disfiguring...excessive and absurd.”

He branded it unnecessary, “a cure for which there is no known disease.”

In his deputation speech, Mr Hutchinson warned: “This is the most important planning decision concerning open space that this council has ever had to consider

He said that the dams “pose the biggest threat since the 1890s when the London County Council tried to turn the Heath into a park.”

The committee was told that the project would close the Men’s pond in November and part of December 2015, the Mixed Pond in January 2016, and the Ladies pond between February and May 2016.

A deputation from pond swimmers, included Geoff Goss, of the Highgate Men’s Pond Association and Jane Shallice of the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association, who pointed out that the council had a duty to protect those who need an “all female” place to swim for religious reasons. She said: “We need a commitment that as women swimmers, there will be a place for us to swim.”

Others spoke of the loss of trees and damage to wildlife, and need to preserve the landscape as painted by artist John Constable hundreds of year ago.

Hampstead and Kilburn’s prospective parliamentary candidate Simon Marcus, said: “Councillors are being told they have to vandalise the heath on the advice of unelected unaccountable engineers.”

Leading deputations in favour of the scheme was city engineer Philip Everett who said his team had put years of effort into the design, which had been “tested again and again”, to come up with a scheme with “a minimal impact on the Heath.

He urged: “Now we just need to get on with it. We hope you will agree.”

Charles Leonard, from the Elaine Grove and Oak Village Residents Association, and Sir Christopher Kelly, of Brookfield Mansions,spoke of the risk to neighbouring and down-stream communities from dam failure.

Highgate labour councillor Sally Gimson said “Those who live at bottom of hill feel those who live at top have taken a discmissive attitude to them...they love the heath too, they just don’t want to be killed or injured by water running off it.”

She added: “With the speed of water coming down the hill and so little time to escape, the risk of drowning would be real..Think of the children walking to school and the disabled person living in a basement.”She warned of “the young families racing home..who can’t run fast enough to escape the tsunami.”

The ten-strong committee, including two members of the Heath and Hampstead Society, voted by six to three in favour of the scheme, with one abstention.

Speaking after the meeting heath superintendent Bob Warnock welcomed the decision. He said the city would keep in close contact with the Pond Project Stakeholders Group during construction.