City of London’s undemocratic commodification of a vital public health resource during the pandemic is a scandal. These spaces are a public good.
by Tom Frederic – 7 min read
The Hampstead Heath bathing ponds have been a freely accessible natural public health resource for generations. As part of the Heath’s natural open spaces, Londoners from all walks of life have experienced their unique value as places of community, mental and physical healing and communion with nature. As one ponds regular, Nina, puts it, “People come because they love the ponds, and who they are at the ponds. There is something timeless and pure, beautiful and gentle – it is called community and it is called love. It is open to all and no one is excluded.” And so it has been for over a century.
The City of London Corporation (the asset management arm of The City) has repeatedly tried to close or monetise the ponds since being handed control of Hampstead Heath by the UK government in 1989, but always faced community resistance. In 2005, an attempt to impose compulsory charges for access was ultimately dropped, honouring community Swimming Associations’ recommendations to preserve the Ponds’ important open ethos. Instead, however, the Corporation introduced a controversial system for voluntary contributions, which many felt set a worrying and divisive precedent: that after generations, ponds swimmers were now suddenly deemed somehow less deserving of the free use of Hampstead Heath than others. Nonetheless, swimmers have said they accepted City’s narrative, of ‘rising costs’, in good faith, and agreed to encourage those who could afford it, to contribute.
But the pernicious idea that swimmers were now ‘getting away with it’ if they weren’t paying, was established.
To those not immersed in Heath politics, this all went mostly unnoticed, and the ponds grew more popular over the years as word spread of these joyous, open ’wild swimming’ spots in the heart of London.
Then, in early 2020, the Corporation again announced plans to impose compulsory charges at the Ponds, and again there was pushback from community groups. But this time, disregarding the outcry, and in the face of universal opposition from the Heath’s Swimming Associations, the City of London imposed the policy anyway, breaking historical precedent in defying for the first time ever, the clear findings of its own, supposedly democratic consultative processes.
Ahead of imposing the new policy, the Corporation published a piece about the cost of its ‘swimming facilities’. This included lido costs with that of the ponds, but then omitted lido revenue, citing only its ponds contributions, creating an exaggerated impression of overall financial shortfall. It cited no evidence City of London, which reported assets of almost £3 billion in 2018, was financially unable to continue subsidising the ponds fully as before.
With the arrival of the pandemic, the policy could be buried amid the ponds’ ‘coronavirus safety measures’ (a new online booking system with timed entry slots for social distancing). Swimmers groups and community members mounted a campaign to protest the move, even as restrictions stifled opportunities for public assembly. This context added a layer of confusion for casual observers who often assumed the protests were about pandemic measures rather than the undemocratic commodification of a vital public health resource in the middle of one of the country’s worst health and and economic crises since the Second World War.
Nonetheless, over 8300 people, so far, have signed a petition opposing the imposition of compulsory charges at the ponds.
In the media, City of London defended the policy, often via the Heath’s Management Committee chair, Anne Fairweather. On social media, Ms. Fairweather shares picturesque images of the Heath and uplifting statements about its beneficial qualities, while steadfastly defending the Corporation against criticism. She issued press statements invoking ‘extensive’ community engagement, but never the fact this revealed overwhelming opposition. ‘Sustainability’ and ’safety’ were repeatedly cited, yet campaigners say the Corporation refuses their calls for full transparency over its finances, while ‘safety’ issues regularly arise in the wider Heath without leading to its wholesale enclosure for a fee.
This approach might seem familiar to those who’ve noticed the loss of so much of our city’s public and community space in recent years. Time and again, developers circumvent the will of local communities to press ahead with unpopular, profit-motivated plans. They misrepresent superficial ‘reviews’ and ‘consultations’ as ‘community engagement’. They frame the communities whose wellbeing is at stake as the ‘real’ threat to the ‘sustainability’ of the space. They invoke employees’ conditions as a divisive form of emotional blackmail. The Management Committee has previously cited lifeguards’ ‘welfare’ rather than acknowledge its policy’s potential to harm vulnerable Londoners – or indeed City of London’s ability to address both concerns simultaneously should it choose to do so.
With public opposition growing, the Corporation conducted a survey inviting feedback on its ‘coronavirus safety measures’ and ‘booking system’, which it subsequently presented as swimmers’ ‘overwhelming’ approval, even though the survey gave no way of expressing opinions about the imposition of new charges as an issue in itself. It released this the same week local news published comments by the outgoing Men’s Pond Association chair, Chris Piesold, in which he said “the damage done to the swimming communities and the culture of the ponds is incalculable”, excoriating City decision makers as “remote and judgmental of a culture of which they know nothing.”
Indeed, of the thirteen members of the Management Committee I contacted for this piece, only one told me they had ever themselves used the ponds.
A community run survey which asked specifically about the impact of imposing compulsory charges, showed overwhelming objection to them, with hundreds of ponds users fearing for the mental health effects of the new policy, with loss of culture and community a particular concern. “This was a community spirited, respectful, soulful, inclusive life raft for so many which has now been productised for gains that don’t reflect the needs of the users of the ponds…” said one respondent. Another described a noticeable shift from the space’s previous inclusivity, saying, “it has become an exclusive enclave of people with money and access to technology.” Responses are striking in their strength of feeling, with people reporting feeling “bereft” at a “terrible loss” and describing City of London’s new policy as an act of cultural ‘destruction’.
Amid ongoing protest, a public online Q&A with City representatives was arranged, hosted by Ham & High and which I attended. Presented with swimmers’ concerns, Ms Fairweather dismissed the views of those present, which included the former chairwoman of the Ladies Pond Association, as unrepresentative. Apparently referring to City’s ‘coronavirus measures’ survey, she told them, “I don’t think the picture you’re portraying is the feedback that we’re getting”. Summing up her position towards the end of the call, in which some swimmers had trembled and fought back tears trying to get through to her, she shrugged, “Ultimately it’s for Parliament to decide if we’re doing a good job or not.” She had moments earlier invited the community to view Heath management as “partnership”.
This conflict between swimmers and the Corporation appears to stem, in part, from a fundamental difference in understanding what the Ponds even are, and what they are actually for.
To many in the community, they constitute simply another natural part of Hampstead Heath, a historically open public space for the benefit of all. Ladies Pond Association former chair, Nicky Mayhew told Camden New Journal, “For most, a quick dip in the swimming ponds is not a sport but an extension of their access to the Heath as a whole.”
City of London, on the other hand, now insists they are ‘facilities’, more like the running track, to use a comparison made by Open Spaces director, Colin Buttery, implicitly too bespoke to be available without charge.
Yet the Corporation’s own website describes them as “natural bathing ponds”, and elsewhere cites the Heath’s being made up of “magical ponds, trees and heathland that support diverse plants and wildlife”. The wider Heath, meanwhile, requires no less upkeep or staffing. On the contrary, while those wanting a quick dip in the ponds are now forced to ‘contribute’ to costs, City’s own figures show the vast majority of the Heath’s budget, over 85%, is not actually spent on them.
So who is right? And, perhaps more importantly, who gets to decide these things?
City of London insists it manages the Heath in an “open, inclusive and democratic” way, but many actively engaged in the Corporation’s processes say it refuses all proper transparency and meaningful participation. Former Men’s Pond Association chair from 2018-20, Chris Piesold has said its consultative process served “no purpose other than to offer a false sense of engagement.”
Various aspects of the Corporation’s conduct throughout this dispute have led to suspicions it is not being straight with the public. Its determination to rebrand the ponds as paid ‘facilities’ appears to align less with financial necessity than with a wider predetermined agenda with potentially alarming implications for those who cherish the Heath’s community and cultural value above its capacity to generate cash. City of London’s Corporate Plan 2018-23 declares the need to be “radical as an organisation”, adding, “we must be open to unlocking the full potential of our many assets – our people, heritage, green and urban spaces…”
To clarify, I contacted members of the management committee asking whether they would support, in principle, running the ponds without compulsory charges, if City of London were financially able to do so. None would say.
The Corporation insists the ponds remain ‘accessible’, citing what it calls a “comprehensive support scheme for people who cannot afford to pay to swim”, but swimmers say this is highly misleading, and refers only to concession prices and ‘free morning swims’ for under 16s and over 60s, meaning the vast majority of those unable to pay remain excluded altogether.
I asked The City of London Corporation for clarification and was told their scheme “includes free or discounted swimming for the elderly, disabled people, job seekers, students, children and volunteers” while “offering discounts to people on Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment.” The conflation of ‘discounted’ with ‘free’ here, enables this long list, which largely covers concession eligibility, but City’s website appears to confirm that unless you are under 16 or over 60 visiting before 9:30am, or accompanying swimmers as a carer, there is no access without paying.
Some swimmers say a ‘support scheme’ is divisive and harmful altogether, and that many will simply give up visits to the ponds rather than attempt a process of ‘proving hardship’, which research has shown can harm mental health in itself.
Campaigners warn that if this commodification is accepted at the ponds, more of the Heath will soon follow. The Corporation recently confirmed it has been discussing charging for, among other things, toilet access.
The management committee chair has said she recognises that some are “not happy” with compulsory pond charges, as though this were a matter of personal offence-taking, when such policies have real, material, social and civic consequences.
Even if you remain unconvinced by talk of ‘culture’, or indifferent to the loss described by those you think have been ‘getting away with it’, little imagination is required to foresee the wider negative impact of all this.
Faced with new financial restrictions on swimming in the official bathing ponds, more people may simply resort to taking dips in the Heath’s other open bodies of water, something The Corporation knows is dangerous, having issued public warnings of their ‘underwater obstructions’ and ‘diseases’. In turn, they may build higher fences, authorise heavier policing and threaten heftier fines, treating the public as enemies in their own spaces, and diminishing the Heath for everyone.
This is the needless creation of social problems and division where they weren’t before, at a time of national crisis, and all completely predictable and avoidable.
While the community has been lectured about ‘sustainability’ and ‘fairness’, City of London is reported to have spent £315,000 subsidising “wining and dining” at its exclusive Guildhall members club. City councillor Graham Harrower told Camden New Journal “That figure doesn’t include the larger cost of dinners and banquets in the Guildhall and Mansion House.” Public records show its senior management salary scale reaches almost £250,000. Meanwhile, a food bank has been operating out of one of its parks.
Unemployment is soaring and mental health providers say they are unable to meet surging demand. City’s own survey revealed the top reason people swam at the Heath was for their mental well-being.
The ponds are a de facto health resource, and were, whether or not you approved, freely accessible to all who needed them until 2020.
Doubling down on this misguided policy would be callous and short sighted at the best of times, but during one of the country’s worst ever public health and economic crises? Indefensible.
Now more than ever, the benefit to London of maintaining the historic open access to the bathing ponds, free from compulsory charges, should be as obvious as it is immeasurable.
Let people swim.
City of London’s Director of Open Spaces, Colin Buttery, and Chief Executive, John Barradell, did not respond to my requests for comment.