ALL ENGLAND AND THE GOLF COURSE LANDS (article from the Society’s December 2021 Newsletter)

The celebrated landscape architect, Capability Brown, created the Park design in 1764/8, and its lake and many of the ‘veteran’ trees still remain from that time. Previously much larger, it Is now reduced to 60 hectares, with three ownerships: the Council owns the public Park and Lake, the Wimbledon Club is privately owned, and then there are the Golf Club lands.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) acquired the freehold of the 29 hectares of Golf Club lands from the Council in 1993, and has recently acquired the outstanding lease. In July the AELTC submitted a planning application proposing to expand its operations onto the Park lands, with a new 8000 seater stadium, 38 open courts, and a number of maintenance depots, player facilities and other structures. This is a building project equivalent to a development of two 10 storey high blocks of flats and 10 bungalows. A section of Church Road would be subsumed into the site.

Various other works are proposed. The lake edges are returned to their Brownian outline, a waterside walkway created, the streams that feed the lake are ‘de-culverted’. The public will also have some restricted access to the open land beside Home Park Road.

The Park is all that we have left of the original Brownian layout. Not surprisingly, it is designated by Historic England (HE) as an Historic Park, Grade 2 star. HE also classes it as ‘at risk’ because the historic value of the site is in danger of being lost, and because of what is seen as the erosion of the Brownian design.

The Park is in a Conservation area and, very importantly, designated as Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) in the Local Plan. MOL is given the same planning protection as Green Belt in national, London-wide and local planning policies.

National planning policy is clear, as are the London-wide and local plans: Green Belt (MOL) land should be retained and protected as open land and not be built on. “Preserving the openness of the Green Belt” is the wording used.

When the AELTC bought the freehold from the Council in 1993, there were clear public assurances by both parties, backed by formal legal covenants, that the golf course lands would remain open and not be built on. If, despite these clear assurances and covenants, the proposed stadium was to be built, who is to say that further stadiums will not be built in the future? Where is the openness of the Park then?

The legacy and openness of the Brownian landscape would be irreparably lost. The Society view is clear. That fact that the AELTC runs one of the four major world-wide tennis tournaments and “puts Wimbledon on the map” cannot justify any building whatsoever in the Park.

The proposals utterly destroy the fundamental openness of the Park with its unique heritage, and totally ignores national and local planning policy. Putting major buildings into long-protected open spaces also fails utterly to respond to the thinking around Climate Change. The development proposals are fundamentally flawed.

Not surprisingly, the application has attracted many hundreds of objections.

Additionally, the AELTC’s offer of payment towards lake dredging, solely a responsibility of the Council, which owns the lake, could be considered to compromise the independence of the Council as it takes the planning decision; as indeed does the existence of the “no-build” covenants.

In its letter to the Council on the application, although registering the strongest objection to the proposals, the Society has made what one hopes is a positive suggestion for an alternative way forward.

We already have the experience of major sporting and other national events being staged in historic and/or open green spaces, using temporary tented villages including large scale arena seating. The Chelsea Flower Show, Henley, Wentworth Golf, Hampton Court Flower Show, the US and UK Golf Opens are some examples.

These are held where no permanent building would be permitted, often in historic settings, and for perhaps a couple of months in the year they are transformed to cater for the extensive facilities required and then revert to open land.

Is not this the better way forward?

In an earlier article we set out our concerns about the proposal -see below

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The proposal and our concerns

The All England Lawn Tennis Club is planning the biggest expansion of its facilities in decades. It is applying for planning permission to build an 8,000-seater stadium, 38 outdoor courts and 10 ancillary buildings on the former Wimbledon Park Golf Course which is a Grade II* Registered Park and Garden, Metropolitan Open Land (the urban equivalent of Green Belt) and a Conservation Area. The project will transform the historic parkland originally designed by ‘Capability’ Brown into a major tennis complex. The development is expected to take 8 years and when completed, will bring an estimated 190,000 more spectators to the annual tournament, including the Qualifying Event which will relocate from Roehampton.

Our Views

The proposed development would be the biggest in the Wimbledon area in modern times and will have implications for the whole community. We have objected to this application for a number of reasons.

Our key concerns are:

1. Under National planning rules (NPPF) very special circumstances need to exist for development on Metropolitan Open Land to be allowed.

2. The proposed stadium will have a retractable roof and a full range of facilities including a hospitality area, restaurants and storage. At almost 30m high it will be similar in height to a 10-storey block of flats.

3. The environmental impact due to the scale of the project will be significant. The stadium and the 10 ancillary buildings require large concrete foundations, and each of the 38 courts will have a concrete surround. The stadium will be mostly concrete. There is bound to be major traffic and construction noise throughout the 8 year building phase.

4. The structures and connecting access roads will be unused for most of the year yet will infill and level a substantial proportion of protected parkland requiring the removal of several hundred mature trees (to be replaced by younger specimens).

5. The density of the development means that the ‘Queue’ and spectator parking would still be sited in the existing Public Park.

6. Church Road would continue to be closed for the championships period to the public, to create a vast single tennis venue, with the 493 bus re-routed.

7. ‘Community Benefits’ are promised, including public access to a section of the parkland (permissive only, in other words at the discretion of the AELTC and could be withdrawn at any point), de-silting of the Lake, and construction of a public walkway round the Lake.

8. When it acquired the freehold to the land in 1993, the AELTC promised publicly to keep the entirety of the land as open space and entered into restrictive covenants with Merton Council not to build on it. It also covenanted to create the lakeside walkway as soon as golf permanently ceased to be played on the land.

If you wish to read our letter in full, you can see it here.

Residents Associations, representing 10,000 households, have produced a leaflet highlighting the issues involved. And here’s a link  to a discussion and interview that Arthur Parashar, a freelance journalist, had with local residents about the environmental impact, local concerns, trust and more with many residents who oppose the development.

The full planning application and accompanying documents can be found at Online Standard Details (merton.gov.uk)scroll down and click on ‘View Related Documents’. Link to map showing area of new development.