Heath & Hampstead Society statement

Heath & Hampstead Society statement

The Heath and Hampstead Society issued the following statement to its members (in November 2013):

As members will see from the announcement of a Special General Meeting and a public meeting – to be held consecutively on the same evening - we are increasingly concerned at the direction being taken by the City in the matter of the proposals for the dams at Hampstead Heath Ponds.

Our Society has for the past 116 years held to account the authorities managing Hampstead Heath. We do this to ensure that, in accordance with the Hampstead Heath Act 1871, they preserve its “wild and natural state” for the benefit of visitors, some 10 million of whom come annually to enjoy this London landmark.

We accept that the City of London Corporation has a duty to ensure the ponds are maintained in a safe condition. But the Society challenges the scale of the City’s latest proposals for a series of building works, in particular the proposed 3 meter-high embankment between the boating and men’s swimming ponds on the Highgate chain, and a new 18  foot high dam above the Hampstead Mixed Bathing Pond.

We believe these proposals are as great a threat to the Heath landscape today as the works proposed by the LCC in 1895 that brought the Society into being. Those provoked a national outcry led by leading figures in the arts, sciences and conservation world.

We urge the City and their advisers to make assumptions based on facts, not abstract computer models. We urge them to stop ignoring a whole series of reasons why they can still soften the designs to make them appropriate for this very special landscape, and adopt more realistic assumptions and a more balanced interpretation of the law.

The words of  Geoffrey Hutchinson QC, distinguished past chairman of the Society, and, as Lord Ilford the Society’s President for many years, are as relevant in today’s situation as when they were addressed to London County Council in the Society’s Annual Report of 1950:

The Council [the LCC] should remember that the Heath and its various additions were not secured for the people of London by their initiative, or that of their predecessors, nor solely at their expense. The Council should therefore be scrupulously careful to observe the conditions upon which the Heath was vested in them and to avoid anything which may seem to infringe these conditions”

The latest situation – the City Shortlist Options
The City published its Shortlist Options Report paper on 2 August  2013, showing detailed plans of two main options for works to both the Hampstead and Highgate chains of ponds. It went for comment to the local Stakeholders Group, on which the Society is represented. The Society commented on the Options in considerable detail. But, while the latest sets of design options show a significant softening of the overall impact compared to those published originally, unfortunately, all of the options currently on offer will, in our opinion, still permanently disfigure the Heath in a way which is not necessary in the interests of the safety of those living downstream.

3 metre-high dam
We are particularly concerned at the proposal to raise the whole length of the embankment between the boating and men’s swimming ponds on the Highgate chain by an extra 3 metres. We considered that the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs in the report do not give a true impression of the proposed change. We therefore asked that posts be erected in situ to make clear just what the height of such a structure would be.

We are still pressing the City to change their minds further but so far, the City’s legal and technical advisers have not accepted our position and we now have reason to question how far our recent submissions have been taken into account.

Our position remains that, while City of London Corporation has a duty to ensure the ponds are maintained in a safe condition with regard to those living and working downstream, but because the unique wild and natural qualities of the Heath also have statutory protection, the works must be the minimum legally necessary. We believe that the City could meet its obligations with a reduced programme of works.

Risk control considerations
The City’s engineering advisors appear to take the opposite view, invariably presenting an extreme worst-case scenario. Mechanistic, generalised industry standard methods constructed on the basis of computer-generated modelling, isolated from any other consideration, are being used to justify gross and possibly unnecessary over-engineering that will destroy the landscape.  Unfortunately they appear to be ignoring a number of important local mitigating considerations, an approach advocated by the Interim Guide to Quantitative Risk Assessment for UK Reservoirs  (Brown and Gosden, 2004:

“The general approach to regulation is that a goal-setting framework is preferable to defining prescriptive standards as it makes duty holders think for themselves. This flexibility leads to methods of risk control being tailored to particular circumstances”.

The case for these enormous dam structures to be built has been promoted by some extraordinary assumptions in computer-modelled predictions of total collapse of all dams and massive loss of life. One of the earlier City reports even referred to one inaccurate mention in a local newspaper in 1975, of an alleged death which, it turned out, had nothing whatsoever to do with the Heath Ponds and did not even take place in this area. No factual record or further mention of it can be found in any of the Camden or GLC Reports of the time, or any other press reports.

No escape of water and no deaths
The fact is that there has been no breach of any of the dams, no uncontrolled escape of water and no deaths, and  never has been in the 300 year history of the ponds.

Such floods as have occurred have been caused by torrential rainstorms. It could reasonably be suggested that, as no amount of dam building will stop torrential rainfall from occurring again in Camden’s streets in the future, and again causing flooding, the City is misleading residents into a false sense of security.

Furthermore in the wider context, the Environment Agency document, Lessons Learnt from Dam Incidents states categorically that:

“Fortunately…… since 1925, there has been no loss of life due to dam disasters in the UK”.

Increasing concern at the City’s actions

Having taken legal advice from a leading QC in the field of reservoir safety, the Society requested a  without prejudice meeting with the City to discuss the legal issues which should underpin the proposed works. This had been set for early September but was then postponed by the City until mid-September.

But before that meeting could even take place the City published a Press Release on September 6,  re-stating yet again warnings of highly exaggerated potential loss of life downstream from the ponds if the embankments were to collapse in an extremely severe rain storm.  The timing of this announcement, ahead of the long requested exchange of views by Counsel on the legal issues, and the City’s apparent determination to press ahead with their plans as quickly as possible before the consultation period has even begun,  leaves the Society sceptical about the whole process.

A Change to the legal approach
Our suggestions, which would require two significant changes in their current legal approach, have already been outlined to the City:
We ask them to recognise the unique legal, environmental and public benefit characteristics of the Heath, which existing reservoir safety regulations are not drafted to address. to also recognise that their analysis of the risks is faulty and wrongly ignores a number of strong local mitigating considerations, which should legally be taken into account.

We believe the engineers are ignoring a whole series of reasons why they can still soften the designs to make them safe and fit this very special landscape. The designs could also be modified to take account of a properly coordinated warning system, which the City is preparing and is required by statute to co-ordinate with Camden and the police, which would reduce the risk of fatalities from overtopping flood water and from dam collapse by ensuring timely evacuation of those most at risk downstream,.
The City timetable and public consultation
The City is sticking to a rigid timetable. The Hampstead Heath Management Committee will select a final set of two alternative designs for each chain of ponds on 25 November 2013.The  City’s public consultation is due to start on 26 November 2013 and continue to 17 February 2014.  So there is still time to persuade the City to come up with acceptable proposals. We strongly urge members to participate in the public consultation. It can be found on the City’s website,The final design proposals will be submitted as a planning application to Camden in May 2014. We have reserved our position on the broad legal issues, and, if at that final stage, the plans are still unacceptable and the combination of legal and technical argument and public reaction has not persuaded the City to modify their plans, the Society will consider mounting a formal challenge.
It is vital to impress on the City that the local community recognises that the Heath is too important to be disfigured by the unnecessarily narrow application of highly improbable engineering calculations, when the interests of safety do not merit this approach.