Hampstead Heath for hire… but will the price be too high?

Thursday, 21st January 2016

Published: 21 January, 2016

CAMPAIGNERS fear the arrival of a “Hampstead Heath for hire” policy will follow a new parliamentary Bill all­ow­ing more private events on the famous 800 acres.

The City of London, which manages the Heath, is facing calls to step back from the opportunity to “commercialise” parts of the historic open space, which could stem from the Open Spaces Bill now being considered by MPs.

As the New Journal reported in November, the City of London brought the Bill to Whitehall at the end of last year, claiming that an 1871 Act of Parliament which guides the management of the Heath and protects against development was no longer fit for purpose

The Bill will allow for:

• the installation of new infrastructure on the Heath; 

• powers to issue on-the-spot fines for offences such dog fouling and cycling; and 

• permission to let out parts of the Heath for private bookings, such as weddings, art shows and concerts.

The potential changes come with the City of London open about its attempt to make cuts and raise extra revenue to help with the £4.5million-a-year running costs of the Heath.

It has an escalating £23million bill for its controversial dams at the ponds, which have divided public opinion.

Helen Marcus, a member of the Heath and Hampstead Society and a former vice-president of the civic group, said: “I find it extremely sinister. 

“We need to be wary of the new Heath Bill as it stands. It allows the Heath to be used for commercial purposes. There is even a section that deals with licensing for commercial activities, which goes against the spirit of the Heath.”

Ms Marcus, who is editor of the London Forum newsletter – an umbrella group that brings together more than 100 civic and amenity societies across the capital – said the Bill opened the Heath to exploitation, adding: “We know the events held in the Royal Parks are extremely damaging, and this is intended to bring the Heath into line with them. The fundamental problem is it gives the City the right to exploit the Heath for commercial activities in the future, and that is completely wrong.

“I see this as part of the gradual erosion of the concept of public good and public service. Everywhere you look, government and authorities are testing the boundaries of what has civic value, and putting a cost on such things.”

Ms Marcus said there were other reasons to fight the Bill.

“One clause, for example, sets out powers for the City to make deals with the Highways Authority,” she said. “Why would they need that? Roads on the Heath were closed in the 1920s. Does this mean they could be reopened?” 

Kiki Kendrick, a regular Heath user campaigning against the changes, warned  of the “creeping commercialisation of a commonly-owned open space”.

She told the New Journal that she feared the dams project was part of a broader picture illustrating how the City viewed the Heath.

“The City intends to open the Heath up to the sorts of money-raising activities that would actually compress the ground, so water has nowhere to go,” she said. “This will increase the risk of flooding. You can’t help feeling they are creating the problem, then coming up with a solution by building dams. 

“The building of the dams also means they have created roadways and an infrastructure. They hope, by the time the work is finished, everyone will be used to the traffic. The dams are a Trojan horse. The City has a rapacious appetite for monetising this unique, fabulous and rapidly disappearing piece of London history.”

Fellow protester Marie Murphy believes the creation of the new dams is another step towards sanitising what was viewed as a wild, open space. 

“It doesn’t feel like the Heath at the moment – it feels like a park,” she said. “We feel strongly that this is part of a longer-term plan and the new Heath Act underlines this approach.”

In October, outgoing Heath management committee chairman Jeremy Simons gave a farewell speech to Heath staff and members of the consultative and management committee in which he warned of the need to find new ways for the Heath to pay for itself. 

He said: “I would like to see more people sharing the City’s commitment over the coming years, whether through sponsorship, regular or legacy giving or volunteering.”

The City has yet to set the Heath budget for 2016-17 but admits “substantial” savings will be made. It has confirmed that it could mean sponsorship and more private events. In recent years, a ticket-only art show has taken place in the area where Bank Holiday fairs are sited –  and such events will become more common. 

But the City insists that it should be trusted and that the Bill includes caveats that will mean it can only hold events on land that has previously been “built on”. 

In a statement about the Bill, a spokesman said: “The green spaces are currently used for a variety of events like weddings, recitals and art shows – and we would like to provide a clear formal basis for them. No major change in the type of events is envisaged. If the legislation is passed, full consultation will take place in order to draw up policies as to the type and frequency of events which may be permitted." 

Whatever the future holds, it is clear that if the Bill becomes law, the common land of Hampstead Heath will be made to work harder for its upkeep in the coming years.

‘The City haven’t the values that fit the Heath… they don’t get it’

Mayoral candidate Sian Berry: ‘More democracy’

PROTESTERS have gathered on Hampstead Heath to demand the City of London hands over the running of the 800 acres of common land to the Greater London Authority.

Campaigners say that whoever becomes the city’s new mayor in May should be given powers to run the Heath alongside the GLA so that the management becomes more democratic.

Protest organiser Kiki Kendrick, who lives in South End Green, said Heath users had become increasingly exasperated with the way crucial decisions on its future were taken.

“The City is the wrong firm to be managing our Heath,” she said. “They haven’t the natural, cultural values that fit with the Heath. They don’t ‘get it’. Their organisation is corporate and looks for ways to monetise the Heath, which leads to a constant battle and inevitably, relentlessly to them undermining it. 

“Hampstead Heath should be put into the hands of the GLA, an elected body with a greater relevance to Londoners.”

The call for changes in who runs the Heath comes as the City faces increasing anger over the cost of its controversial anti-flood dams project, and as it seeks the legal right to use the Heath to raise funds for its upkeep.

Ms Kendrick added: “Hampstead Heath is for the people. The GLA is elected by the people and that’s a much better fit. It needs to be protected as a natural habitat. The City intends to pump more and more corporate events onto the Heath. In November they went to Parliament to quash the 1871 Act that states the Heath must remain a Heath. That speaks volumes about their future intentions.”

Asked how she felt about a transfer of control, Hampstead and Kilburn Labour MP Tulip Siddiq said: “In principle, I would support the handover but I would like to see the proposals. We need Heath managers to be as accessible as possible and it does not seem the City of London have done that well.”

Green Party councillor and mayoral candidate Sian Berry said there was a need for greater transparency, but would not be drawn as to whether the GLA would do a better job.

She said: “There is a sense that it is a case of ‘father knows best’. The City keeps in touch with users, but often it feels like it is not early enough in the decision-making process. 

“Furthermore, the City of London is a tiny state with a vast global reach, and a massive influence on London but with almost no democratic control. The Greens would abolish its out-of-date constitution and make it a proper borough. Meanwhile, the least we can do is help bring more democracy to how it runs our precious open spaces.”

Heath superintendent Bob Warnock

The City took over Hampstead Heath in 1989 after the Greater London Council was scrapped. As part of the deal, it set up a management and consultative committee to act as monitors. 

That is made up of 12 elected members of the City of London and includes representatives from Barnet and Camden councils, English Nature, English Heritage and 19 civic groups. Michael Hammerson, who is Highgate Society’s representative on the City’s Heath consultative committee, said he did not favour the switch suggested by Ms Kendrick.

But he added: “There have been changes in the economic and political climate. This has led to more top-down control from the centre and it feels they do not have the same understanding as the Heath’s management team, who are still committed to the Heath and its values and are receptive to issues.”

Others have questioned whether the GLA would be suited to the task. Gospel Oak Labour councillor Sally Gimson sits as the Town Hall representative on the Heath management committee, and insists the City does a good job.

She said: “They do a lot of consulting. We saw that over the dams. The amount of cash they have spent on the Heath each year is large, and does the GLA have that type of money? 

“Be careful what you wish for. Every public body is trying to raise cash. It is difficult to condemn the City for looking at ways to use the Heath to do this.”

The City’s Heath superintendent Bob Warnock said: “Over the last five years the City of London has invested more than £50m in the Heath to ensure its long-term protection and conservation. 

“Of course, there will always be debate about policy on Hampstead Heath, but the Heath is managed in an open and democratic way with 19 groups taking part.”

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