Professional football or recreation and nature?

By Alice Roberts
6th April 2022

In our report Forever Green published in March 2022 we detailed more than 50 threats to parks and green spaces in London.

Perhaps surprisingly, four of the threats relate to professional or semi-professional football clubs, one even involves kicking out a men’s grass roots club, Bealonians, from the site they have occupied for many years. So, what’s going on, why is this a problem, and what needs to change?

  • Southall FC is looking to take over part of Warren Farm in Ealing, a site which was playing fields, has since become a nature reserve and was always intended for public recreation. They want to build a stadium.
  • West Ham FC is looking to take over part of Oakfield Sports Ground in Redbridge, currently occupied by grass roots club Bealonians and intended for public recreational sports. They want to build a West Ham Academy.
  • Tottenham Hotspur FC is looking to take over part of Whitewebbs Park in Enfield. They want to build their women’s training centre.
  • Dulwich Hamlet FC has gained permission to build a stadium on Green Dale Fields a public park in Southwark. Following a long period with no news, in March 2022 the club announced: “We have been issued this week with a letter before action against Southwark Council in advance of a judicial review to contest the decision.” We are awaiting details…

Professional sports clubs are an important part of local culture but they should not take over land intended for public recreation. The sites involved are all protected either Green Belt or Metropolitan Open Land and are designated in one way or another for public recreation. It is not clear why concessions are being considered or have been given to these clubs but political pressure and cosy relationships underpin these threats. In the case of Southall Football Club, this is owned by the local MP’s son. Whether local councillors are football fans or not, they should not be handing over land intended for public recreation to professional, semi-professional or exclusive sports clubs.

Warren Farm (Ealing)

These disused playing fields, owned by Ealing Council, have been derelict for many years. For a time, the site was threatened with development of QPR’s training ground (Ealing Council gave a 200 year lease, free, to QPR). Local campaigners fought to save it as it had literally, over time, turned into a nature reserve with incredible biodiversity including rare and threatened species. QPR eventually backed down. But the site remains in limbo with no clear identity despite a major local campaign to establish it formally as a nature reserve: 11,000 people have now signed a petition led by local campaign group Warren Farm Nature Reserve to give the site protected status.

Threatened and rare species like the Skylark can now be found at Warren Farm

In April 2022, however, Southall Football Club posted on their website that Warren Farm ‘Sports Centre’ (its old name) had been identified as a possible suitable site for Southall Football Club. Even if Warren Farm had not turned into a nature reserve, it would be entirely inappropriate for a professional or semi-professional sports club to take over this site, first and foremost because the site is there for public recreation, and secondly because it is protected Metropolitan Open Land where any structures, including stadiums, are banned.

We say: sites intended for public recreation should remain available for this purpose. In this case, it should be a nature reserve. Facilities for recreational sport are vital and these are being developed in other parts of the borough.

Whitewebbs Park (Enfield)

Enfield Council has indicated it will support a bid from Tottenham Hotspur to build a training facility on Whitewebbs Park, on the part of the park which was a public golf course. This would mean loss of public recreation and access to a large section of the park as well as loss and destruction of natural surface and important habitat. Campaigners point out that the park was purchased by the local authorities with the intention it should be available for public amenity. They say it should not be leased to a wealthy private company, for exclusive use and profit, as this will lead directly to loss of public amenity. Campaign Group: Friends of Whitewebbs

We say: We are very concerned about the transfer of this public asset for use by a wealthy professional football club. We are also concerned about the tender process which the council went through, where their stated intention was to make the park more accessible to the public – something which clearly will not happen if an exclusive training centre is built there.

Oakfields Sport Ground (Redbridge)

The popular grassroots club, Bealonians FC is at risk of losing its current home to make space for a West Ham United FC academy facility. The Bealonians’ lease negotiations with Redbridge Council were ceased, and according to campaign group Save Oakfield Society (SoS), Redbridge Council is in negotiations that could see part of the Oakfield site used as a West Ham Academy, effectively privatising a public amenity. Campaigners are calling for the land to be protected from development and for its public amenity status to be retained for future generations. Campaign Group: Save Oakfield Society

Bealonians is a popular, grass roots football club currently looking at being evicted from the site they have occupied for years

We say: We are concerned about the transfer of this asset to a wealthy professional football club and are working with the local group to help them raise a challenge if necessary.

Green Dale (Southwark)

A damaging scheme to build a new stadium for Dulwich Hamlet Football Club on Green Dale park was given permission by Southwark Council and the London Mayor, and will mean the loss of a large area of this park, specifically the area which is a turn-up-and-play, free to use, all-weather pitch currently used for football and other informal sports. A high, visually impermeable fence will obstruct views across the open space and beyond and significantly impinge on its sense of openness. Local campaigners resisted the development and we heard nothing for a long time until, in March 2022, the club announced: “We have been issued this week with a letter before action against Southwark Council in advance of a judicial review to contest the decision.” We are awaiting details…

We say: We are very concerned about the transfer of this public asset to a professional club and do not consider that there were any grounds for using a public park for this purpose. We were also dismayed to see both Southwark Council and the Mayor of London ignore Metropolitan Open Land protection and allow a stadium to be built on protected land.