Swimmers take Hampstead Heath pond charges challenge to the High Court

City of London defends handling of swim fees

Thursday, 24th February — By Dan Carrier

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Heath users including Christina Efthimiou outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday

IT wasn’t the warmest of February days, but pond- users stood outside the High Court in their swimming costumes yesterday (Wednesday) to show how strongly they oppose compulsory charges.

They went head to head with Hampstead Heath managers, the City of London, at the Royal Courts of Justice in a legal challenge over the cost of a freshwater dip.

Lord Justice Cotter heard barristers thrash out the arguments over whether the City had discriminated against disabled swimmers when they introduced controversial charges two years ago, a move that ended centuries of the tradition of free bathing.

In March 2020, the City imposed new fees to swim in the ponds as it looked to cover the costs of more lifeguards and a £5million a year maintenance bill for the Heath’s 800 acres.

The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association and a regular swimmer, Christina Efthimiou, then brought this week’s judicial review.

Barrister Zoe Leventhal, representing Ms Efthimiou, told the court that the City had failed to monitor the effects of new charges had on users, were breaking its own rules over managing the Heath, and were failing to fulfil the charitable aims of the body the City funds to pay for the Heath.

Ms Leventhal told the court: “The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is a unique space in Europe. It has a rich history, and a unique atmosphere. It is not comparable to a leisure centre or a swimming pool, nor a reservoir you can swim in.”

She added: “It is a special and wonderful space for women to be themselves, to relieve tension and stress. It is held in trust by the City for the recreation and enjoyment of the public in perpetuity.”

The court was told how after the City voted to bring in tickets it failed to launch an impact assessment or a hardship fund – two key promises made to swimmers.

Ms Efthimiou has been taking regular dips for her health for over five years but said since the City introduced charges she has struggled to maintain the keep-fit regime recommended by her doctor.

Ms Efthimiou worked as a play worker for children five before she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis aged 30. On top of that, she suffers from lung condition COPD, sciatica and fibromyalgia, which causes pain all over the body and extreme tiredness. It has left her on long-term medication and pain killers.

Ms Leventhal offered 10 reasons the charging regime was unlawful, including how the charges undermined the City’s own stated aims and policies.

She said: “The priorities of the charity state that diversity and equality is key.

Their aim is to create accessibility and remove barriers, to seek insight into needs, make sure they are accessible and it is financially inclusive.

They go on to say that ‘…monitoring the changes and benefits of our actions, evaluating and checking our course so we are able to make corrections’.

Yet there has been no data collected on how these changes affected people. If you do not monitor disabled use, you will not know the depth of the problem and therefore if it needs a solution.”

The QC added the City had used “magic maths” to say charges were “modest”, querying how affordable a season ticket is and highlighting there was no way to pay for it in instalments.

Barrister Clive Sheldon QC, representing the City, said: “In simple terms, the charging policy for swimming doesn’t constitute discrimination. We say the ticket prices at the ponds are modest and are subsidised. It includes a 40 per cent discount for disabled swimmers. It cannot be seen as discriminating.”

He added: “This challenge must fall at the first hurdle. There is no disadvantage as under­stood by the Equality Act. There cannot be a disadvantage when the price charged is a modest one… It is not a justifiable grievance. It just isn’t something a reasonable person could complain about. Something may be too expensive for you, but that does not give you the right to a justified grievance.”

The hearing continues today (Thursday), with a ruling due in four to six weeks.

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