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The Guardian First Edition (email): Inside the All England Club's Awkward Expansion

The Guardian First Edition (email): Inside the All England Club's Awkward Expansion

"Today we’re taking you to Wimbledon, where the bosses of the tennis championships have been fighting a decades-long battle to take control of the Capability Brown-designed park next door to add 39 more courts to the tournament.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) dream to expand the championships site across Church Road have moved a step closer after its plans for the Wimbledon Park development were approved at a sometimes high-tempered, marathon council planning meeting on Thursday night.

However, despite winning over the approval of Merton council the AELTC still needs to get the backing of neighbouring Wandsworth council (which controls part of the park), and then the mayor of London. If it doeslocal campaigners demanding the parkland is protected – in line with a 30-year-old legal covenant – are vowing to take their fight all the way to a judicial review.

As part of this battle, Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, Piers Morgan and former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell, each received an £85,000 windfall payment. I’ll explain why, after the headlines."

In depth: I don't believe it is abour tennis or the people - it is about making money

Martin Sumpton, a local resident and friend of Wimbledon Park, has devoted much of his retirement to fighting the AELTC plans. “I just love the park so much, and I think it should be saved for everyone”, he says.

But even Martin has his limits. He left the planning meeting at Merton Civic Centre on Thursday night before the vote, because “if I hadn’t left then I’d have missed the last bus home it went on so long”. The meeting, which began at 7.15pm on Thursday, went on until almost midnight after being interrupted by protesters declaring the council chamber a “climate crime scene”.

In the end councillors voted six to four in favour of the scheme to build an 8,000-seat covered show court and 38 other grass courts on the Grade II-listed parkland designed by Capability Brown in the 18th century.

The yes vote won despite 13,338 people signing a petition to “Save Wimbledon Park” and more than 2,000 letters of objection from local residents. Stephen Hammond, the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, and Fleur Anderson, the Labour MP for nearby Putney, declared their opposition in a rare joint statement.

“We both agree on the importance of protecting our local green spaces, responding to the climate emergency, and carefully and rigorously scrutinising all proposed developments that will impact the communities we represent,” they said.

Almost 300 trees will be removed to allow the AELTC’s building plans, which some locals describe as “corporate ecocide”. The club says most of the trees are “poor quality”, and says it will plant 1,500 new ones.

The 30-year-old legal covenant

The ALETC first set its sights on expanding into Wimbledon Park in 1993 when it bought the freehold of the land from Merton council for £5.2m. 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”.

The club rented the land to Wimbledon Park golf club until 2018 when its chairman said he feared the SW19 championships would fall behind its competitors in New York, Paris and Melbourne if it did not expand and offer greater facilities for players and spectators. The obvious place to expand, he said, was on to the golf club.

But, the golf club’s lease on the land lasted until 2041 meaning AELTC couldn’t take back the land for another 23-years. To get round it, the tennis club came up with a cunning plan it offered the golf club members £65m to give up their club early.

The £85,000 windfall to give up golf

This sparked a battle of morals among the 120-year-old club’s 758 members, who would get an £85,000 windfall each. “It’s like Brexit,” one of the members Catherine Devons told me in 2018. “You are either for it or against it. The offer has split members and put decades-long golf partnerships on the rocks.”

In the end, 82% of the members voted in favour of selling the club. Wimbledon is a chi-chi part of London, and the golf club’s membership roster reflected that with members including Piers Morgan, Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, and Lord Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary. O’Donnell abstained in the vote, because he served on the All England board alongside Tim Henman. The others didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Martin was part of the 12% who voted against, and he still sorely misses his golf club. “It was always meant to be public open land, but since the All England bought it fences have gone up and security guards patrol it,” he says. “And if they get their way and build on it, that important public open space will be lost forever for the sake of some tennis. I don’t believe it is about tennis or the people, it is about making money.”

He argues that even though Merton council have approved the AELTC’s plans, they shouldn’t be allowed to go ahead because of the covenant. However, Labour councillors, who hold the majority on Merton council, last year voted through a motion saying the covenant “needs to be respected” and not “enforced” as the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives had proposed.

Sally Bolton (pictured in green jacket), chief executive of AELTC, said she was delighted that the plans had been approved.

Sally Bolton (pictured in green jacket, above), chief executive of AELTC, said she was delighted that the plans had been approved. “Our proposals will both secure the future of the championships for generations to come … and provide a transformation in community amenities, including a new 23 acre park for everyone to enjoy on land which has been inaccessible to the public for over 100 years.”

Over to you, Wandsworth

The northernmost triangle of Wimbledon Park is not in Merton. It is contained within the borough of Wandsworth, and its planning committee must also approve the scheme at a meeting expected in November.

If it also gives the go-ahead, the decision will then be passed on to Sadiq Khan as the mayor of London is in charge of development on metropolitan open land, which the park is classified as. Michael Gove, the minister for levelling up, housing and communities, could also intervene.

Martin, and the other campaigners, have already started writing letters imploring them to step in. But if that also fails, they are planning to launch a judicial review challenging the legality of the decisions – particularly those related to the covenant.

“There are a lot of fine legal minds around here,” says Martin. “They have helped us massively so far, and we’re sure they will be up for continuing the fight.”


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