Protestors outside the Merton Civic Centre ahead of the meeting
October 27, 2023
There was dismay and disappointment from campaigners against plans for a tennis centre on Wimbledon Park after the Merton Council planning committee voted to give them the green light.
Councillors at the meeting this Thursday evening (26 October) voted narrowly by 6-4 to approve the scheme with all the members from the ruling Labour group in favour.
The vote represents a major step for the ambitions of the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) to extend its SW19 complex over the road into the public Wimbledon Park. It then plans to develop the area with a new 8000-seater show court, 38 additional practice courts and other player and administrative amenities.
There was a protest by local groups outside the Civic Centre prior to the meeting with many having brought banners castigating AELTC and suggesting the scheme would be bad for the environment.
Only 50 members of the public were allowed into the venue to hear proceedings and representatives of the Save Wimbledon Park campaign were unhappy with the balance of the discussions. They said that the claims made by the applicant in favour of the scheme were not being subject to sufficient scrutiny and the council should have done more to validate them particularly where they related to the environmental impact. Prior to the meeting campaigners and opposition councillors had already raised concerns about the amount of time being given to residents to make oral submissions on the application.
AELTC argued that the conversion of what was a golf course into a publicly accessible space of 23 acres, there will be more park areas available to local people despite the new buildings and required culling of a large number of mature trees.
When it came to the vote Labour councillors Billy Hayes, Dan Johnston, Stuart Neaverson, Michael Butcher, Sheri-Ann Bhim and Aidan Mundy voted in favour with Lib Dems Susie Hicks, Kirsten Galea, Conservative Thomas Barlow and independent Ed Foley opposed.
Protestors accused the council of putting financial interests ahead of the environment
The way is not yet clear for the project to proceed as Wandsworth’s planning committee will also have a vote. Opponents of the scheme remain hopeful that there will be a different outcome at this vote as the financial benefits that accrue to the borough are much less than in Merton where it is believed that AELTC are the largest contributor to the council’s tax revenue.
Opponents of the scheme still believe that the issue of the covenants that both the council and AELTC agreed to when the freehold of the Golf Club land was sold to AELTC in 1993 could still provide a stumbling block for AELTC. It is argued that the low price of £5.2million paid for the site came with conditions that would preclude the planned facilities. AELTC contend that its proposed use is consistent with the covenants.
Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidate for Wimbledon, Cllr Paul Kohler, who was at the Civic Centre for the meeting and attended the protest outside said, “Up to now the Council have refused to exercise the covenants as they were waiting for the planning decision, but the time has come for them to exercise their legal rights and stand by the promises made by the Council and AELTC.
“To that end I have written to the Mayor of Merton asking for an Extraordinary meeting of the council to discuss the covenants protecting Wimbledon Park, where I will be proposing that the council enforces these protections. Local Liberal Democrats hope that Labour Council bosses will understand and appreciate the impact this development could have on the local area and keep their word by enforcing the promises both the Club and council made to the residents of Merton."
Putney MP Fleur Anderson said ‘fight not over yet’ adding, "I am extremely disappointed that the AELTC proposals for Wimbledon Park have been given this initial green light. I have been campaigning alongside residents to object to these plans, as I believe that this public green space should be put in a public trust, which would guarantee it can never be built upon in the future. If this expansion gets the go-ahead, how can we be sure that development of the Park will end here?
“I am deeply concerned at the precedent this sets not only for the development of Wimbledon Park itself, but other public, green spaces in the future. Generations of people have fought for public access to green space. The decision was railroaded through the committee with very little time in the meeting given for local residents and councillors to put their case and I have heard that there was discussion of possible legal action against Merton Council if they did not pass the proposals from a lawyer during the meeting. The process will be questioned by campaigners.”
She is asking Wandsworth Council to reject the proposals arguing that giving permission to build on Metropolitan Open Land creates a dangerous precedent and that they have an ‘immense detrimental impact’ on the lives of those living nearby.
She also expressed disappointment in the community provision contained within the plans saying, “I believe that a development of this source, spending hundreds of millions of pounds, should make far better provision for investing in the local community. I would at the minimum expect a far greater investment in our local schools, to ensure that local children – who often live in underprivileged local communities, without gardens or access to good sports facilities – see some of the benefit of this enormous development on their doorstep.”
CGI of the aerial view of the completed scheme. Picture: AELTC
A Wandsworth planning meeting is scheduled to take place next month and the application may be considered then. Given the controversial nature of the proposals, and that approval will be required from both Merton and Wandsworth Councils, they may be 'called in' by City Hall for further review by the Mayor's planning team.
If AELTC’s plan is not blocked later in the planning process, it is expected to be completed early next decade.
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