It’s Heath and Safety gone mad in Hampstead
Published, January 17 2014
Dam nonsense! No, that’s not a lamentable misspelling. It’s the name of a website (damnonsense.org.uk, to be specific) set up to object to a scheme that would radically alter and (in the view of many critics) disfigure the greatest open space in London. Namely, Hampstead Heath. And yes, the title is literally apt. At the heart of the proposed scheme is a series of hefty new dams, as high as 5.6 metres.
They would enclose the much-loved chain of ponds on the Highgate side of the Heath. These lakes aren’t natural; they were created as reservoirs 300 years ago to store the water of the River Fleet for drinking purposes while it was still relatively pure. Yet they have a wonderfully natural look, fringed by trees and grassy banks. Swimming and picnicking there is one of the perennial joys of the London summer, and thousands flock there every warm weekend.
Quite a few hardy souls also swim there in midwinter, though my own masochistic urges don’t extend that far. And though the segregation of the sexes may seem quaint in 2014 (there are still separate men’s and women’s ponds) it is surprisingly popular, especially with the gay community.
The ponds won’t disappear if the proposed scheme goes ahead, but the objectors — led by the formidable Heath and Hampstead Society — say that the dams would destroy their rustic charm, ruin landscapes beloved of painters through the ages and make them “look like municipal waterworks”. Apart from the long-term damage, the scale of the building work would blight the ponds for years.
So why is the scheme being proposed? The answer is that the City of London Corporation, the local authority that owns and runs Hampstead Heath, claims that without the new embankments there is a risk of the ancient reservoir walls collapsing in a flood, leading to potentially catastrophic loss of life in Kentish Town and Gospel Oak. What’s more, the City maintains that the health and safety requirements of the Reservoirs Act 1975 allow it no legal option except to build new dams.
The objectors say this is, well, dam nonsense. They claim that although there is occasional flooding in those salubrious streets below the Heath, it has nothing to do with the ponds. It is caused, they maintain, by sewers unable to cope with torrential downpours. In their 300-year history, the ponds’ dams have never been breached.
They also accuse the City of stoking up irrational public fears by postulating ludicrous worse-case scenarios: a once-in-400,000-years storm probability, for instance, in which every dam round the ponds is breached simultaneously and a Biblical flood drowns 1,400 people. Far better, cheaper and less disruptive than this huge project, they argue, would be an upgrade to early-warning and civil emergency procedures.
I hesitate to be too critical of the City. It gamely took on the Heath when the Greater London Council was abolished, even though the verdant vales of Hampstead lie well outside the Square Mile. And it has hitherto been a model custodian. At a time when cash-strapped local authorities across Britain have allowed many parks to become overgrown, the Heath’s 900-odd acres have been scrupulously tended. Of course, with most of the capital’s lawyers, bankers and media grandees living around its borders, that doesn’t come as a total surprise, but at least millions of ordinary Londoners also benefit.
This overblown dam scheme, however, strikes me as being an example of a local authority being led up the garden path — rather literally, in this case — by engineers and planners intent on creating years of lucrative work for their own profession. The 1871 Hampstead Heath Act requires its guardians to maintain its “natural aspect and state”. If you feel that the new dams contravene this stipulation — or even if you think they will be a marvellous addition to London’s rus in urbe — go to the City’s website (cityoflondon.gov.uk/pondsproject). You have until February 17 to state your view.