Swimmers voice concerns over proposals to introduce ‘applied charging’ at Hampstead Heath Ponds

The City of London Corporation is consulting with swimmers on plans to introduce “applied charging” at Hampstead Heath’s three Bathing Ponds after it launched a safety and sustainability review last month.

The review has been launched to ensure the swimming facilities at Hampstead Heath can meet the growing demand, following advice from the Health and Safety Executive that it needs more lifeguards.

Karina Dostalova, Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Hampstead Heath Management Committee, said: “We are looking at everything we are doing and are looking to ensure that we follow advice and guidance from the Health and Safety Executive and to maintain a duty of care to our lifeguards. We want to make sure that we have the right resources in place to serve this purpose and maintain visitor safety.”

As part of their new proposals, the City Corporation is looking into the option of what they call “applied charging”, which means swimmers will be required to pay compulsory fees to use the ponds and entry to the site will be controlled.

The City Corporation says they have been left with no choice but to look into introducing compulsory charging as the current income they receive from single ticket and season ticket sales is “not sustainable”.

They estimate that just 4% of the 600,000 swimmers who visited the ponds in 2019 paid to swim.

But regular users of the ponds claim that the introduction of what they see as “enforced” charging is not necessary and would instead welcome the current payment infrastructure to be fixed, which at the moment does not offer a user-friendly and efficient system.

Marc Hutchinson, Chair of the Mixed Pond’s Association, said it is the practicality of payment, rather than the idea of payment itself that is the problem.

“If you want to pay voluntarily, it is difficult to do so,” said Hutchinson. “There are a lot of people who would happily swipe their contactless card as they go in, but that system is not available.

“We do not welcome enforced charging. We favour the introduction of a system that allows people to pay easily, coupled with a proper message and signage inviting people to pay.”

Dostalova said the signs at the Ponds were reviewed two years ago when the committee worked with the Pond’s Association to develop appropriate wording.

“We accept that the machines, because of the poor reception in those remote areas, does not always work. We know that the technology that is there at the moment is not great.

“That is why we are doing the Swim Review. It will look at everything; health and safety aspects, safety operating procedures, access points and how we can make the Heath a sustainable facility for the future.”

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An unenforced charge of £2 was introduced at the Ponds in 2005

Nicola Mayhew, Co-chair of the Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond, has also raised concerns over the impact that controlled entry measures will have on accessibility to the ponds.

“It will mean that people will be excluded by price. It might be that some would be happy to see only people who can afford the higher price, but this seems to be contrary to the spirit of Hampstead Heath and the spirit of wild swimming.

“People may also be encouraged to swim in the other ponds which are not lifeguarded, where they are more likely to damage themselves and risk their health.”

Dostalova has said that the committee has considered accessibility and has been discussing both of these issues with the associations.

“We would very much like to keep the season tickets at the same price that they are for concessions, which works out at 46p a swim if swimmers swim there three times a week, which we think is incredibly good value,” said Dostalova. “It is a concern for us that when the facilities are full then people will take to the nearest water and that is part of our review as well to ensure that when those incidents occur that we have the appropriate procedures and signage information in place to manage those situations.”

Mayhew acknowledges the City has to take seriously the health and safety advice issued to them by the Health and Safety Executive and hopes that they can reach an “amicable agreement” to make it easier for swimmers to pay using the current systems.

However, she warns that if the City introduces the enforced charges it would destroy the atmosphere of a unique and special place that people come from all over the country and the world to see and would set a precedent for other authorities that want to control and monetise other waters.

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