The Hampstead cafe on the frontline of the war against corporate chains
The Guardian, by Ed Cumming
“It felt terrible. But what can you do? Nothing lasts for ever.” Alberto d’Auria is sitting at a table in the Parliament Hill Cafe, the north London tea room at the heart of Hampstead Heath which he has run with his family for the past 33 years. Watching pensioners stir their teas and teenagers pick up diet colas, it seems unlikely, but over the past fortnight this unassuming building has become the latest front in a countrywide war over our public spaces.
The heath is one of the capital’s most popular destinations, receiving seven million visitors a year. Many are drawn to the celebrated – and strictly protected – view from the top of Parliament Hill, and thousands stop by the cafe on the way down for a cup of coffee or a bowl of pasta. It is hardly Michelin-star stuff, but it is reliable and well priced and nobody could accuse it of being corporate. But two weeks ago Alberto learned that the City of London Corporation, which runs Hampstead Heath, had awarded the cafe contract to Benugo, the smart coffee-shop chain. Benugo will also run cafes in Golders Hill Park and Highgate Wood. It already runs one in Regents Park, the V&A and the Museum of London.
The D’Aurias must move out on 8 May. “We offered them rent of £90,000, up from £80,000, plus commission,” says Alberto. “But it wasn’t enough.” With deeper pockets and more efficient supply chains, Benugo was always likely to outgun the D’Aurias financially. “Money talks,” adds Alberto’s son, Alfonso.
Residents are up in arms. Zoe James started an online petition on change.org, which at the time of going to press had more than 11,700 signatures. She has also formed a committee to help organise the resistance. At 2.30pm on Monday they will present the petition to the corporation at Guildhall. Next Wednesday there will be a public meeting at the Highgate Civic Centre. Celebrities have also weighed in. Alastair Campbell tweeted his support. Giles Coren, The Times’s restaurant critic, argued that if you were going to have a Benugo there, you might as well have a McDonald’s.
“I’m not actually against Benugo per se,” says Doug Crawford, another member of James’s committee. “It’s about the transparency of the process and the absolute lack of consultation by the corporation. They do not own the heath, and they do not have carte blanche to do what they want. If we don’t challenge it now there will be other issues. We don’t want to be bullied by the corporation.”
The group says that the tendering process did not include enough public consultation, and “was not a level playing field”, in Crawford’s words. Eventually they hope to find enough evidence to support a judicial review of the decision. They also argue that Benugo’s higher prices might exclude poorer visitors.
“All 28 bids were evaluated against set criteria,” said a City of London Corporation spokesman by email. “They were subject to detailed evaluation by the Hampstead Heath Management Committee and an independent catering specialist. Affordability was a key component and Benugo has said they will continue to offer tea and coffee for £1, and be highly responsive to customer feedback.” Queries about the corporation’s response to the outcry were unanswered.
It is hard not to see the outrage over the cafe in the context of the broader debate about the heath’s management. Hampstead Heath has been under the City of London’s aegis since 1989, when Margaret Thatcher disbanded the GLC. With plenty of assets the City of London was well placed to take it on. Yet critics say that for all its largesse the corporation is unaccountable. Siân Berry, the Greens’ London mayor candidate, wants more transparency. “The City keeps in touch with users, but often it feels like it is not early enough in the decision-making process,” she told the Camden New Journal. “The City of London is a tiny state with a vast global reach, and a massive influence on London but with almost no democratic control.”
The corporation has recently redrawn many of the heath staff’s contracts and made several redundancies. A popular local children’s club has been cut. A private member’s bill is making its way through parliament to update the 1871 Act that governs the heath. The corporation claims this will enable it to build new infrastructure and issue fines for cycling and dog fouling, but it will also permit it to let out areas for private functions, as is common in the royal parks.
Most controversial of all is the restructuring of drainage dams in the northern part of the heath. These earthworks are designed to safeguard against flood risk, and it is estimated they will cost at least £23m. “We have a duty to run our services in the most cost-effective manner,” said Sue Ireland, the corporation’s director of green spaces. “It is only by doing so that we can invest £5m a year into Hampstead Heath.”
Whatever happens, Alberto says the D’Auria family will be all right: they run a thriving ice-cream wholesale business. The omens for London’s open spaces are less clear. The cafe at Kenwood House, at the north end of the heath, is managed by Searcys, also owned by the same parent company as Benugo, WSH. There are fears that the lido and running track might also be parcelled out to other management. Those who care about the future of London’s public spaces should care about the Parliament Hill cafe, whatever they think of the bolognese.