MP Keir Starmer: ‘Benugo’s pulling out is victory for people power’

Keir Starmer MP, Cllr Sally Gimson, Save Parliament Hill Cafe Campaigner Kirstie McKevitt and Andrew

Keir Starmer MP, Cllr Sally Gimson, Save Parliament Hill Cafe Campaigner Kirstie McKevitt and Andrew Dismore London Assembly Member - Credit: Archant

In an extraordinary victory for people power, the corporation which runs Hampstead Heath has backed down on plans to allow a chain to take over three family-run cafes after the overwhelming strength of public feeling against the move became clear.

The City of London Corporation has said it will rerun the tendering process for the cafes and the upmarket Benugo chain has pulled out after more than 24,000 people signed a petition against the planned takeover.

Holborn and St Pancras MP Keir Starmer told the Ham&High he had spoken to the Chief Executive of the City, John Barradell, and could confirm that the deal with Benugo will not go ahead and that a public consultation will be run prior to tendering.

Mr Starmer said this was “great news” following a stormy public meeting on Wednesday night where it emerged that contracts had not yet been signed for the takeover of the three cafes in Golders Hill Park, Parliament Hill and Highgate Wood.

He said: “It’s an amazing result, a real victory for local people.

“It is rare for a public authority to admit they’ve got it wrong in this way, but it’s very welcome.”

Mr Starmer, who is also a QC, had urged the City to recall the contracts before they were signed by Benugo, after its director of green spaces, Sue Ireland, said she “wasn’t sure” whether or not the deal was signed, sealed and delivered.

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When pressed to answer the question by an angry crowd of around 300, Ms Ireland eventually said: “When I last checked – which was yesterday – they hadn’t been signed.”

The meeting was chaired by Highgate Labour councillor Sally Gimson, who also urged the City to listen to the level of public anger and to pull the deal.

The City’s chairman, Virginia Rounding, admitted during the meeting that their consultation had failed to take into account the feelings of the cafe’s regular users.

Mr Starmer told the audience: “The fact that local people weren’t asked before the decision was made is simply not good enough.

“What I would say to the City of London is, you need to have courage to reverse this decision.”

Ms Rounding responded by saying she had voted against the initial proposals, and promised to ask the City to look again at their decision.

Benugo was “empty chaired” at the meeting after failing to turn up and face the hostile audience.

Ben Warner, founder of Benugo, today released a statement saying: “We were delighted to have been chosen to run this prestigious venue – as a user of the park and someone who lives nearby, it was a proud moment for me, personally.

“However, having listened to the opinions of local residents and people who use the Heath, many of whom are existing customers of ours, we have paused to reconsider our position.

“Having given this a lot of thought I, and my colleagues at Benugo, now firmly believe that the right thing to do is to step aside.

“We will also be withdrawing from the opportunity to operate the two other nearby venues within the North London Parks, Golders Hill and Highgate Wood .

“We’ve listened, and are responding in the way we think is best for all. I would like to thank everyone who has engaged with us on this issue, and also, to wish all users of the Heath, and the future operators of these venues, the very best.”

The Parliament Hill café is known for its cheap and cheerful, unpretentious food. It has been run by the same Italian family, the D’Aurias, for 33 years.

The family - who had faced eviction on May 8 - will now be able to make a fresh bid to remain as proprietors.

A “picnic protest” had been planned outside the cafe for this Sunday, but campaigners are now organising a victory celebration instead.