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 the former Golf Club lands are owned by the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), an exclusive private Club with around 375 full members.
The former Borough of Wimbledon acquired this land in 1915. A Golf Club had already been established on part of the land and this continued under a succession of leases from Wimbledon Council. In 1965, Wimbledon was merged into the London Borough of Merton and the Golf Club continued to lease their land from them. The entire Wimbledon Park Estate, including public park, lake and golf course, was legally designated as public open space, held in trust by Merton for the people of Wimbledon.
In 1993, Merton sold the freehold of the 29 hectares of Golf Club lands to the AELTC. Golf continued under the new landlords. It insisted, and the AELTC promised that it would be used for recreation and would not be
developed. Golf continued under the new landlords. In 2018, the AELTC acquired the outstanding lease (which would have run to 2041) from the Golf Club.
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*. HE also classes it as ‘at risk’ and states: “Divided ownership results in differential landscape management. A masterplan exists for the public park, but a shared vision for the whole historic landscape is needed.”
The Park is a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, it is in a Conservation Area and, very importantly, it is 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.
AELTC Planning Application
In July 2021 the AELTC submitted a planning application proposing to expand its operations onto the golf course lands, with a new 8000 seater and 28m high stadium, 38 open courts, and a number of maintenance depots, player facilities and other structures.
Various other works were proposed. The lake edges would be returned to their Brownian outline, a waterside walkway created, and the streams that feed the lake ‘de-culverted’. The public would also have some restricted access to the open land in the south of the site, but the plans include no provision for toilets or other facilities.
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 were to be built, this would open up the possibility of applications for further substantial buildings.
The legacy and openness of the Brownian landscape would be irreparably lost. Our 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 golf course lands.
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 to respond to the thinking around Climate Change. The development proposals are fundamentally flawed.
Not surprisingly, the application has attracted more than 2000 written objections to both Merton & Wandsworth Planning Departments.
The AELTC’s offer of payment towards lake de-silting, which is solely the responsibility of Merton Council which owns the lake, benefits their land by avoiding flooding and preserving the integrity of their own lakeside borders.
The proposed development would be the biggest in the Wimbledon area in modern times and will have implications for the whole community and for Metropolitan Open Land across the country. 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 any development on Metropolitan Open Land to be allowed. We do not believe that there are any “very special circumstances”.
2. The proposed stadium will have a retractable roof and a full range of facilities including a hospitality area, restaurants and storage. At 28m 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 will be major traffic disruption, construction noise and air pollution 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 whips and 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 be closed to the public for the expanded 3-week championships to pedestrians and cyclists as well as motor vehicles in order to create a vast single tennis venue. The 493 bus, an important link between St George’s and Roehampton Hospitals, would be re-routed.
7. When it acquired the freehold to the land in 1993, the AELTC publicly promised to keep the entirety of the land as open space and entered into restrictive covenants with Merton Council:
a) not to build on it,
b) not to use it except for recreation and leisure or as open space, and
c) to dedicate the lakeside walkway for the public when golf ceased to be played.
a) the AELTC’s plans would include building a 28m high stadium and ten other ancillary buildings.
b) “Recreation and leisure” does not include paying for tickets to watch other people playing tennis.
c) golf ceased to be played on 31 December 2022. But no publicly accessible walk around the lake is being created. The AELTC is relying on a legal technicality that, as the lease still subsists, they have no need to comply with the Lakeside Covenant. Instead, the AELTC’s plans include a permissive boardwalk mainly constructed in the lake, and they are claiming this as a “Community Benefit” deriving from their application. This would be a shorter route than the 1993 covenant required and by putting the route into the lake instead this allows them to retain (and put more courts on) land close the lake border, requiring the felling of dozens of trees, where the original dedicated walkway should have run.
However, the proposed lakeside walk is not a benefit arising from this application but is a pre-existing obligation under the Lakeside Covenant. That commitment is for a lakeside walk. Instead, the AELTC’s proposal is largely for a boardwalk in the lake and therefore it does not properly satisfy the commitment contained in the Lakeside Covenant.
We have been surprised that the lawyers for the AELTC have suggested in planning submissions that their clients would try to find ways of getting round the covenants altogether. We do not believe that is consistent with their reputation, nor with the law and
will oppose any such efforts.
8. Other ‘Community Benefits’ are promised, including public access to a section of the parkland, de-silting of the Lake and providing public access to tennis courts. But:
a) the “public” park would be permissive only; in other words, at the discretion of the AELTC who could withdraw public access at any time and have indicated that they would do so during the championships. It would be traversed by roads connecting the rest of the site to the proposed central maintenance hub, proposed to house 80 vehicles and 150 staff.
b) the Lake is owned by Merton Council, who have a duty to maintain it: the AELTC are offering to pay for the de-silting that the Council has failed to do itself.
c) the offer of public access to tennis courts is for just 7 courts (max), post championships only (6-8 weeks), and by invitation not “book and play”. They are also relocating existing Junior Tennis initiatives which are successfully operating elsewhere, so there is no additional support for community tennis.
9. There are a multitude of environmental objections to the proposals. In particular:
a) The AELTC promises that there will be a net gain in Biodiversity, but this is faulted by poor surveys missing much of the present value, and by over-optimistic evaluation of paper promises. They claim to surpass the planning requirement for 10% net gain over a 30-year period. We are sure there will be a net loss, especially as the AELTC’s calculations omit around 1,000 trees and saplings from their calculation of tree loss.
b) Retaining 35 veteran oaks is good, but these are there already, so this is no gain. Set against this is the loss of around 800 existing mature trees and saplings and destroying the existing parkland grassland. These are immediate losses and no planting can result in any real compensation for this within the 30-year period.
c) The Lake already supports the endangered eel, the declining Swift and 8 species of specially-protected bats. As with the veteran trees, retaining the lake is no gain. Insects emerging from the lake support the birds and bats. The proposed method to desilt the lake will release huge amounts of pollutants presently locked away at depth, making the lake toxic. It would take years to recover. This will harm the eels, birds and bats. Again, the losses will be immediate and any recovery is theoretical, at best.
d) The national planning framework requires pollution reduction. AELTC’s management of the intensive tennis development requires extensive use of fertilisers and biocides, which will leach into the lake, essentially untreated. These pollutants will prevent any improvement of lake water quality.
e) The national planning framework requires carbon sequestration through the retention of existing trees. Felling more than 300 mature trees will release at least 770,000 kg of carbon dioxide, which is a huge and immediate loss of sequestered carbon. At best, the loss will not be redressed for 50 years.
10. In additional to the Covenant, there is another major legal consideration.
In March 2023 the Supreme Court decided, in the case of Day v. Shropshire, that when selling public recreation land, a local authority must first advertise the proposed sale and undertake a statutory consultation. If this procedure is not followed, the land remains subject to a statutory trust for public recreational use after its disposal.
The golf-course land in Wimbledon Park was public recreation land prior to its sale to the All England Club in 1993. We have found no evidence that the statutory procedure was followed by Merton Council prior to that disposal. It follows, in the light of the Supreme Court decision, that the land remains restricted to public recreational use.
We consider that planning permission should not be granted for the AELTC scheme which would be incompatible with such public use. The existence of the statutory trust is a further “material consideration” to which the planning decision-makers must have regard.
Current State of the Planning Application
Because the application site straddles the Merton/Wandsworth Borough Boundary, the application had to be made to both Councils. Even though 90% of the site lies in Merton, both Boroughs had to consider the whole application. Then, because the site includes Metropolitan Open Land, once the two Boroughs have given their formal opinions, the application is referrable to the Mayor of London. Finally, there may be a referral to the Secretary of State for a final decision. Planning Permission is not granted until no further consideration of the application can be made and an agreement is signed between the applicant and the planning authority under Section 106 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1990. This can include a payment by the applicant to the local authority to cover additional costs arising from the granting of planning permission.
Merton’s Development & Planning Applications Committee considered the application on 26 October 2023. Its members voted 6-4 to approve it.
Wandsworth’s Planning Applications Committee considered the application on 21 November 2023 and voted unanimously (7-0) to refuse the application.
The application now moves to the Mayor of London. On 24 November 2023 a Petition bearing more than 16,000 signatures opposed to the application was handed in at City Hall.
Below are two maps illustrating the site.
1) The first shows current land ownership and context. The AELTC’s current lands are all west of Church Road. They now control the former golf course (coloured pink and labelled as “Heritage Golf Course”. Adding this to the existing site trebles the area that would be used for the Championships.
The public park (coloured green) and the lake (coloured blue) remain in Merton Council ownership.
The Wimbledon Club is an independent sports club unconnected to AELTC. It also owns the strip of land connecting its grounds to Church Road, over which the AELTC has no rights.
2) The second map shows a consolidated plan showing all development works.
The purple oval is the proposed 28m tall stadium, more or less level with Number 1 Court across Church Road.
There would be substantial permanent entrance plazas at the northern and southern access points. Some 9 kilometres of roads and paths would connect these to the stadium, 38 other grass courts, the central maintenance hub (the purple triangle at the southern edge) and other buildings and would traverse the proposed “public” park.
There would be a concrete access point for each court down one of its sides (the red lines next to each rectangular court outline).