Heath managers: You will have to splash out to swim in ponds
'It would be tragic if the City of London was allowed to destroy the unique character of Hampstead Heath'
14 February, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
CENTURIES of free swimming on Hampstead Heath looks set to come to an end in May after its managers, the City of London, revealed its plan to introduce compulsory tickets at the popular bathing ponds.
The City says it is currently consulting on options – but a report sent to swimmers states it will introduce a gate system to ensure anyone who uses the ponds has to pay to get in. It would end a tradition that has been enjoyed by generations – and critics say the City of London, which is the UK’s richest local authority, has fundamentally misunderstood its role as Heath guardians by trying to force through the plans.
Following a meeting with City managers and swimming groups on Tuesday, swimmers told the New Journal they believed the City was “about to railroad through changes… that will hit the most vulnerable, including those for whom access to the ponds is vital for their mental and physical health”.
They claim the City has already decided to enforce compulsory charging, adding they have implored the City for years to make a voluntary payment scheme easier to use – but their requests have fallen on deaf ears. A report by City officers and presented to swimmers states they hope to introduce the new gates by the beginning of May
. The plans emerged after the City was advised by the Health and Safety Executive to employ extra lifeguards – coming as the City freezes budgets for its open spaces.
Now the City, which last November warned of budget cuts as they seek to build a new £288million concert hall near the Barbican, says it can no longer afford to run the ponds without compulsory charges as cold water swimming has increased in popularity.
City figures show it spends £747,000 on the ponds each year – but an “honesty” box-style ticketing system brings in £67,000. Swimmers argue that installing turnstiles and staff charged with “enforcement” will destroy the Heath’s “peaceful and natural environment” – and add that it would encourage people to swim in ponds that do not have lifeguards.
Highgate Men’s Pond Association chairman Chris Piesold said: “It would be tragic if the City of London, one of the wealthiest local government authorities in the world, was allowed to destroy the unique character of Hampstead Heath. We stand ready to work with the City to find imaginative and sensitive ways of achieving sustainability in the current financial climate.”
Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association co-chair Julia Dick added: “We believe we have a duty to ensure that swimming in the ponds remains affordable and accessible to all.”
The City, which took on the management of the Heath following the abolition of the GLC in 1987, tried to introduce charging in 2005 – but were beaten at the High Court. Instead, it put in ticket machines that could be used voluntarily.
It currently spends around £5m a year to manage the Heath, with the money coming from a £6bn trust fund called City’s Cash. Many swimmers add it is a historic right to swim free of charge as the Heath is essentially common land. Others add they are willing to voluntarily pay a contribution towards the running costs.
Hampstead Heath Management Committee chairwoman Karina Dostalova said: “The Health and Safety Executive has warned we need more lifeguards after swimming numbers doubled in the last decade to a record 655,000 visits a year. Hampstead Heath is a registered charity. But under 4 per cent of pond swimmers pay the £2 charge, which we reinvest back into the facilities and helps pay for lifeguards.”
“We want to make sure the ponds are safe for everyone. They need to be run with a sustainable management model to ensure the whole of the Heath remains an open space to be enjoyed for years to come. That’s why we are engaging in discussions with swimmers about lifeguarding provision and charging. The Heath Management Committee will consider proposals in March.”
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