Hands off our Heath

hampstead heathThe campaign by Hampstead Heath users to stop their much loved family-run cafes being taken over by a corporate chain was treated as a minor news item in all but the local press.

But the fact that ordinary people managed to stop the mighty City of London Corporation in its tracks by halting the deal is a cause for great celebration, indicating as it does that people have just had enough of being  ignored and screwed over by the powers that be.

The City of London Corporation has been throwing around its weight for some time, causing upset with a costly restructuring of drainage dams and making cuts to staff and children’s services. Everyone knows it is not short of a bob or two but it still had the cheek to talk about the need to save money.

So when it announced that it had chosen coffee chain Benugo to replace the Heath’s three cafes, which have been family concerns for decades, all hell broke lose.  People using the Heath were outraged that they had not been consulted during the tendering process, which the Corporation said was based on getting value for money. This is a meaningless phrase regularly trotted out by those who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing

It was just another example of how private interests are intruding more and more into the public realm, not to improve it, but to make money from it.

At its most extreme,  government policy has created a housing bubble that has allowed the wealthy to colonise inner London, leaving the rest of to hang on in there for our dear lives or migrate to the as yet less desirable areas.

Schools, fire stations and libraries, built by the tax payer to enhance people’s lives, have been sold off to create more luxury homes, while anonymous chain stores and eateries are busily cashing in on once run down areas like Shoreditch that they had no hand in making fashionable.

Like so many new public spaces, the King’s Cross Railways Lands, which have finally been regenerated following years of community engagement, turn out to be completely private. Put a foot wrong there and you’re out.

Massive steel and glass towers crowd the London skyline screaming fuck-you to St Paul’s and the little people down below. This is the way we do it now and we don’t give a damn what you think.

Where will it all end? With a Tesco Extra on Hampstead Heath, if the City of London Corporation could get away with it.

Only now that is far less likely. Following a 24,000-strong petition and a noisy public meeting, Benugo sensibly decided to pull out, leaving City officials with egg on their faces.

They forgot that they run but do not own the Heath. Since the 19th century it has been regarded as land to be “enjoyed by the commons” after objections to its 200 plus acres being encroached upon by developers brought it into public ownership. Further legislation ensured that the Heath’s wild and natural character be preserved. People’s attitude to their beloved Heath did not change when Maggie Thatcher handed over its management to the Corporation in 1989 following her nutty abolition of the Greater London Council.

They are angry and are no longer willing to stand by while all that is good about the city they live in is  commodified.

Rather than yet another sanitised space replacing something that was warm, quirky and familiar, Hampstead Heath users spoke up for many when they said enough is enough.

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