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Confirmed: Compulsory charges WILL be introduced at Hampstead Heath swimming ponds

Objectors vow to keep up campaign for free freshwater swims

13 March, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

SWIMMERS have vowed to fight City of London plans to scrap the centuries-old tradition of free swimming on Hampstead Heath after compulsory charges were confirmed yesterday (Wednesday).

The City’s Hampstead Heath Management Committee voted nine to one in favour of forcing swimmers to pay and hiking prices up by 100 per cent for regulars and 140 per cent on concessions ticket prices. Charges had previously been voluntary.

A review of the system has followed a boom in the numbers enjoying open-air swimming which are estimated to have risen from around 300,000 in 2011 to around 655,000 swims per year now.

The death of a swimmer last summer also led the Health and Safety Executive to recommend that the City, stewards of the Heath, consider employing extra lifeguards and new technology at the Men’s, Mixed and Ladies’ ponds.

Swimmers had gathered outside the meeting at the Guildhall in the City with a lively demonstration beforehand.

Nicky Mayhew, chairwoman of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association, told the New Journal that the decision would not be accepted quietly.

She said: “I am very disappointed that the City has rejected a consensual approach that had found favour with our members and the Heath’s consultative committee. We feel the consultation was driven by a pre-determined goal to introduce compulsory charges and increase them massively. We will be considering our response.”

This could range from taking the City to the High Court – a move which was successful in 2005 when the City sought to impose tickets – to organising a boycott or a campaign of non-compliance, where swimmers would still use the ponds but refuse to pay the charge.

She added: “It makes me wonder if the City of London are the best stewards of Hampstead Heath. Is it time to look at their overall management of the Heath and reconsider this? Is it time to question whether they are the best authority with the right values to manage our common land?”

Mike Sands, chairman of the Men’s Pond Association, said: “We feel the consultation was a farce and so it proved. They have not made it clear how they intend to collect this money. Will they have a ranger, like a bouncer, blocking entry? Will they have a bucket, not secured, as they try and make people pay? It is reckless and a recipe for disaster. What if people say no? There will be fights.”

He added: “Imagine being stood at the gate with a huge crowd of people trying to force their way in on a hot day. It will drive people to swim other in ponds which aren’t life guarded and are wildlife sanctuaries. Others will just decide to go in off the banks. What came over today is they thought we had got away with something for many years, that we are freeloaders, and failed to understand the ethos of the place. They took no responsibility for the 15 years they have failed to collect the charges. We have asked for years for ways to contribute using card payments and that the ticket machines do not work. They have sucked their teeth and never tried anything.”

He added he believed it showed the City, which manages the financial district of the Square Mile, knew “the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

Mr Sands added that it would hit younger people hard – and dissuade youths from swimming outdoors, while a proposed hardship fund would be difficult to operate.

John Beyer of the Heath and Hampstead Society was the only member of the management committee to vote against the new system.

As an alternative, opponents had largely backed what was known as “Option two” – which would have seen charges remain voluntary but with easier ways to contribute, better signage, cashless options, and making season tickets simpler to buy.

Karina Dostalova, the management’s chairwoman, told the meeting that health and safety issues were a “primary concern” and highlighted that the ponds cost more than other activities to manage.

She added: “The ponds are a special place. We will ensure their management is sustainable. Numbers had doubled and we want to be ready for the summer, so we reviewed our health and safety protocols as we have a duty of care to our swimmers and staff.”

Ms Dostalova added: “We have found some common ground, but not on how we cover costs. There were two slogans used by swimmers: ‘Access for All’ and ‘Ponds Not Profit’. We are on the same page. The ponds are not there to make a profit and we want to ensure nobody loses out on swimming. We will recommend a number of concessions and set up a support fund.”

City officers had recommended Option three – compulsory charges policed by Heath rangers, with prices doubling. The committee, made up of aldermen, elected councillors from the Square Mile and delegated representatives, agreed. Mr Beyer had called for the views of a consultative committee of Heath users to be adopted, as had been similarly done when a large sculpture planned for near Kenwood was rejected last year. Other committee members were adamant, however, that the ponds needed compulsory charges.

Committee member Michael Hudson, who voted in favour, told the meeting: “It is clear we have the legal power to set charges as we see fit. We introduced voluntary charging in 2005. That’s 15 years ago. I do not think it is rushing matters. We have been over soft, if anything.”

After the meeting, Ms 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 their busy lives. We are working closely with swimmers to make sure the right resources are in place to keep it that way.”

“We would like to thank swimmers for their positive contribution and will continue to collaborate with them as we implement these changes.”

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