News from the far end of the tram network shows that council planning departments really can say “No” to big-money interests, after planners rejected proposals from the All England Club to build a massive stadium and dozens of tennis courts over a public park.
The organisers of the annual strawberries, cream and champagne festival (which has a bit of tennis tacked on) are among the richest sports bodies in the country.
The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is so posh, they still have “croquet” in their title, and they are the only Grand Slam tournament that still plays “lawn” tennis on grass.
For four decades, the All England Club has had its tanks parked on someone else’s lawns – the fairways and public spaces of Grade II*-listed Wimbledon Park, on the other side of Church Road from the world-famous sports venue.
In 1993, it bought the freehold of the land from Merton Council for £5.2million (a bargain, even then). But it signed a covenant agreeing that it would “not use the [land] other than for leisure or recreational purposes or as an open space”.
In 2018, the All England Club then bought up the heritage golf club within the park, but granting it a lease through to 2041. The tennis club offered £65million for the golfers to put down their G&Ts and exit the 19th hole early, meaning a £85,000 cash payout for all the members, who included Ant and Dec and Piers Morgan. Cushty.
Now the All England Club wants to to build an 8,000-seat show court and 38 other grass courts on the park, which would allow the tournament to expand, and would allow them to stage a third week of the annual tournament – the qualifying round – closer to their the venue.
As well as the golf course, the park includes a range of public utilities, including a boating lake and athletics track, and it has been a popular venue for running races, including the Surrey County road relays each autumn.
The park has long provided an over-spill for the tennis tournament, with car parking and customer queuing spaces during the Wimbledon fortnight in June and July.
Almost 300 trees would be removed to allow the All England club’s building plans, which some locals described as “corporate ecocide”. The club said most of the trees are “poor quality” (yeah, of course they are!) and said it will plant 1,500 new ones.
There has been a massive public backlash against the land grab in the park.
More than 14,000 people have signed a petition to “save Wimbledon Park” and in excess of 2,000 letters of objection have been received by the councils. When the club conducted a public consultation, it distributed nearly 1,500 letters. Only 83 responded supporting its proposals. More than 1,000 objected.
Merton Council (Labour-controlled, and where wannabe MP Councillor Natasha Irons is the cabinet member for the environment…) has already given planning consent for the controversial scheme, despite the massive opposition.
But yesterday, planning officials in Wandsworth (now also Labour-run), which has the northern corner of the park within its borough boundary, recommended that they refuse the All England Club’s proposals.
The Wandsworth council officials’ report states that they have concluded that the scheme “would cause substantial harm to the openness” of the Metropolitan Open Land. The tennis proposals, the planners said “constitutes inappropriate development in MOL”.
The proposal is due to go before a Wandsworth planning committee meeting next Tuesday.
Trying hard not to sound like they’d got a plum in their mouth, an All England Club spokesperson, who may well have been wearing a blazer and crisp white flannels, said, “We are surprised that planning officers at the London Borough of Wandsworth have recommended refusal of the AELTC Wimbledon Park project, particularly after the London Borough of Merton resolved to approve the application following extensive analysis and debate both in their officers’ report and at the planning committee.
“We regret that Wandsworth’s officers have taken a different view but it is for councillors on the planning applications committee to make their own considered decision at the meeting at 21 November.”
For the project to get a green light, it will need approval from both councils, as well as approval from the Mayor of London.
The park’s listed status and planning designation as Metropolitan Open Land – something that Croydon Council often turns a blind eye to – means that for any development to take place on the parkland, it must meet “very special circumstances” before the planners.
“Wandsworth council planning officers have not found that these ‘very special circumstances’ exist and so have recommended the plans be refused,” Fleur Anderson, the Labour MP for Putney, said.
“The campaign continues. Our precious green space must be defended. But this is a very positive step in the right direction.”
If only Croydon’s MPs were as animated about the interests of the people they are supposed to represent…
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