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Women swimmers challenge lawfulness of charging system for use of Hampstead and Highgate ponds

Lawyers representing women swimmers have written to the City of London Corporation to challenge the imposition of new charges for swimming in the world-famous Hampstead Heath Bathing Ponds.

Posted on 05 May 2021

The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA) says the introduction of increased compulsory charges – which have been disproportionately increased for disabled swimmers and those on low income – is unlawful and their ‘letter before action’ is a first step before applying for judicial review of the decision to bring in the fees.

The KLPA, along with swimmer Ann Griffin, who is registered blind, say the increased charges for swimming at Hampstead Heath Ponds agreed on 24 February 2021 discriminates against swimmers under the Equality Act 2010 and interferes with swimmers’ human rights given the unique history of the Ponds and the physical and psychological benefits of cold-water swimming.

KLPA ask for:

  • The self-policing day ticket to be restored from £4.05 and £2.43 (concessions) to £2 and £1 (concessions) for at least the summer 2021 season to trial whether encouraging payment by those who can afford it can generate the income required
  • Free access for those on benefits and low income
  • Free swims to under-16s and over 60s at any time of day (instead of just early mornings)

The KLPA says the new charging regime disregards the history of the free-to-access ponds, that it is exclusionary and has changed the whole character of the bathing ponds.

Until March 2020 a ‘self-policed’ charging system operated at the pools. Following a review of charges for swimming in early 2020, the new regime chosen by CoL raised the entry fee by 100 per cent for non-concessions and 140 per cent for concessions, and made charging compulsory. The bathing ponds were closed during the first lockdown until re-opening under the new charging regime on 11 July 2020 despite pleas from the KLPA that the City of London should show generosity to a community in economic distress.

The KLPA said the new system is unaffordable for many swimmers.

It said it is concerned that the new charging regime will destroy the unique ethos and culture of the bathing ponds and that women, the elderly, disabled swimmers and certain ethnic and religious minorities (such as Jewish Orthodox women and Muslim women) are likely to be disproportionately affected by the changes.

The KLPA gave feedback at a Swimming Forum held on 18 January 2021 at which a discussion of the proposed price rises for 2021 took place, but was constrained by being confined to AOB by City of London managers.

The KLPA made clear their continued concerns about affordability and exclusion, as the new season ticket prices at the ponds would again disproportionately affect those eligible for concessions. Season tickets were generally increased by the RPI inflation rate (1.3 per cent) but those for pond swimmers eligible for concessions were increased by 15-21.5 per cent.

They also shared the results of a survey conducted by the KLPA which showed that:

  • The 2020 charges have affected affordability for 58 per cent of respondents.
  • Of those, 25 per cent said they could no longer afford to swim, 26 per cent said they could not afford the upfront cost of a season ticket, and nine per cent of respondents had been helped by friends or relatives to pay for tickets.
  • Half of all respondents had seen their income decline during 2020.

Despite this evidence the CoL decided to increase prices again on 24 February 2021, to take effect from 1 April 2021.

A spokesperson for KLPA said:

“The Ladies’ Pond is a unique women-only space for swimming and relaxation that also provides a place of refuge and security for women and girls of all ages, including those who have suffered violence, abuse and coercive control; those with disabilities; low paid and unwaged carers; and those from religious faiths that require modest dress and segregation of the sexes.

“The KLPA believes that the City of London has disregarded the important role of the swimming ponds in the traditional fabric of life on and around the Heath and the ways in which local people use them. The ponds are part of the natural environment; local people have swum in them for centuries in the same casual way as those who live by the sea might take a daily dip while walking on the beach.”

Ann Griffin said:

“I have swum at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond for over 20 years, and through the winter for four. It has been a fundamental part of my health and wellbeing. In the last year the new charging and booking arrangements have made this so difficult for me due to health and financial reasons. I have had to depend on the financial help of others to be able to swim there at all, and cannot imagine how I will be able to continue to do so. The bathing ponds are therapeutic for so many people, which everyone has always been able to use free of charge, like a beach. As financial difficulty was never a barrier, the Ladies’ Pond has been an inclusive community. But this is now being destroyed by an infrastructure of inflated compulsory charges and online booking, so many like me are now excluded.”

Leigh Day solicitor Kate Egerton said:

“Our clients are passionate about protecting the Hampstead Heath Ponds for the use of everyone who wants to use them, regardless of their financial means.

“They believe that by pricing many swimmers out of access to the ponds, the City of London Corporation has discriminated against their members and deprived many swimmers of an important aspect of their private life as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.”

The City of London has responded to the Claimants’ Letter Before Action denying liability and KLPA and Ms Griffin are now considering next steps with their lawyers.

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Kate Egerton
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Kate Egerton

Kate Egerton is an associate solicitor in the human rights department.

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