By Glen Keogh, 4 June 2023 (paywall)
"A court case from Shropshire has been siezed upon in the fight against the All England Club's 'industrial' development".
"Today the Sunday Times covered the growing campaign to save Wimbledon Park from the 8,000 seater tennis stadium development. I met with
at the Park with local residents to talk about the plans.
Our London green spaces are precious."
"It is a sunny morning in the bar area on the first floor of the Wimbledon Club, a mere Djokovic forehand from the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s world-renowned Centre Court. Ducks waddle across well tended cricket pitches below. In the distance, oak trees line what was until recently a golf course.
Between sips of tea, five residents talk about how plans lodged by the All England Club to build an “industrial tennis complex” on the former fairways would ruin this idyllic view.
The Wimbledon Club is in the middle of where the All England Club, which runs the Wimbledon tournament every summer, wants to build 38 grass courts, a 28-metre high, 8,000-seat stadium and several ancillary buildings. It wants to bring Wimbledon’s qualifying tournament, played at nearby Roehampton, on site.
The battle, which this group says has the support of thousands of residents, is long-running. But now thanks to a Supreme Court judgment — brought by a Shropshire residents’ group against their council — it believes it can halt the plans.
The All England Club bought the land from Merton council in 1993 for £5.1 million. In 2018 it offered Wimbledon Park Golf Club £65 million to end the lease, which had been due to expire in 2041. Every member of the golf club, including Ant and Dec and Piers Morgan, among others, received £85,000 from the deal.
“The whole area of the golf course will be trashed and transformed,” Iain Simpson, 76, chairman of the Wimbledon Park Residents Association, said. “It is wanton destruction of a quite precious piece of green space.”
He and his fellow campaigners have alighted on the ruling that Shropshire council should not have approved moves for a housing developer to build on parkland in Shrewsbury.
Peter Day, who brought that case on behalf of Greenfields Community Group, relied on a statutory trust created in 1926, which said the land at Greenfields should be kept for recreational use.
Three judges agreed, saying residents’ rights should have been considered during the 2017 sale of the land by Shrewsbury town council to a developer.
Simpson, his fellow campaigners and at least two lawyers believe the case has parallels to the Wimbledon planning battle where a trust, established when the council bought the land in 1965, stipulated that it could only be used for “public walks or pleasure grounds”, including a golf course.
When the land was sold to the All England Club in 1993, a restrictive covenant was in effect that said the land should be used for leisure or recreational purposes and “not to build on it”.
Tony Colman, then the Labour leader of Merton council, said the council was “resolute that the land be retained as open space” and the All England Club was “aware that we would not allow development”. The site is also “metropolitan open land”, which has the same protected status as green belt and can only be built on in “very special circumstances”.
Residents believe these reasons should be enough to stop the plans. Merton council is considering the repercussions of the Shropshire ruling.
Day, 58, a former university academic, is backing the Wimbledon residents. “On the back of what we did, they have an excellent chance,” he said. “I would hope the Wimbledon group will take some sort of inspiration from the fact that they are probably more organised than us — and we succeeded.”
However, the All England Club said it did not believe the Shropshire ruling had any bearing on its planning application because the land has been used as a private members’ golf club for more than 100 years, rather than for the benefit of the public.
It said its plans included creating a 23-acre public park, although some residents claim that will not be public because it is up to the club to decide when it is open.
Back in the Wimbledon bar, Simon Wright, 65, who represents residents in Southfields, which borders the park, said the All England Club had refused to talk to residents’ associations.
“I like tennis. I go [to Wimbledon] most years, as do all of us,” said Wright, a chocolate wholesaler.
“Most people who are objecting like the tennis. Objecting to the fact that there is tennis here is like moving under the flight path to Heathrow and complaining about the noise. It’s not hostility towards tennis, it’s the lack of trust.”
Jonathan Morrish, 72, has spent 50 years in the music industry, handling PR for Michael Jackson and George Michael. “The AELTC — we say it stands for ‘anti-environmentalists love their concrete’,” he said.
Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, met residents outside the former golf course. “This is not just nimbyism, this is about the whole borough and wanting to save green space,” she said.
“I love Wimbledon and going up against them is very sad. The tournament is fantastic for the area. But this is just wrong. They are not being good neighbours. They are riding roughshod over the views of local people as well as the climate concern.”
Stephen Hammond, Tory MP for Wimbledon, shares Anderson’s concerns. “This is the most controversial planning application in my constituency for the last decade,” he said. “Whilst everyone wants Wimbledon to remain the premier tennis championship in the world, this plan is too big. The legal covenant imposes restrictions on what can be built [and] must be respected.”
Sally Bolton, chief executive of the All England Club, said more than 1,500 people in Wimbledon and Southfields had written in support of the planning application. She said the plans would provide “substantial year-round benefits for the local community”.
“Central to our proposals is the opening up of land on what was a private golf course, which has been inaccessible to the public for over 100 years, to create a beautiful 23-acre public park, a new accessible boardwalk around Wimbledon Park lake and community use of the proposed new courts and facilities,” she said.
“It is our hope that these benefits, alongside many others, such as an increase in biodiversity of the site and the planting of 1,500 trees, will provide a lasting legacy for our local community to enjoy for years to come.”