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Weighty Wimbledon wade in to takeover neighbouring park

Alice Roberts
By Alice Roberts
19th October 2023

The All England Lawn Tennis Club move one step closer to taking over Wimbledon Park

The AELTC bought the golf course site in Wimbledon Park, adjacent to the Wimbledon Tournament site, from Merton Council many years ago, with a view to expanding the tournament. When they bought it, they knew it was protected land. They accepted it had a covenant restricting commercial use. And provision was made for the public to use the golf course at low cost so protecting public access to the site. Local residents fought hard to make sure it was retained for recreational use.

Many years later, presumably thinking that everyone had forgotten about these provisions and protections – they put in a planning application to build a stadium, several other buildings, extensive engineered tennis courts (replacing natural surfaces) and other development, all of which will have a major impact on the ecology and MOL status.

Finally the planning application is due to be considered at Merton Council’s planning committee on 26 October. The London Mayor will then be required to make a decision on whether this incredibly important piece of Metropolitan Open Land will be developed. The Mayor has the final say-so because the land is protected, and the Mayor’s London Plan policies state clearly that protected MOL should not be built on.

Most worryingly – public access will be gone forever from the old golf course part of the park – access which the community fought hard for when it was sold to AELTC many years ago and which enabled local residents to use the golf course at low cost (of course public access to public spaces is sometimes charged, it doesn’t make it exclusive unless there are unreasonable restrictions on who can use it or if the charge is too high for most people to afford).

Whether or not we golf is the best use of the space – the fact is it was a golf course and local people were able to use it at low cost. Public access has now been lost as the golf course has been closed. We are not clear even now if the AELTC can legally close the site to the public in this way – it having been available to the public throughout.

In any event, the AELTC has done nothing to offer or secure public access to the whole site whether for golf or anything else. It has simply offered a small part of the site as a new ‘permissive’ park (meaning they can close it when they want) with the rest of the site wiped off the map for the public and used only once a year to benefit professional sportspeople. (We have been at pains to point out that enabling the public to watch professionals playing sport is not the same as enabling the public to enjoy the use of a space to play recreational sport or for recreation more generally. There is case law in this respect.)

Greenwash and the AELTC

We also have serious concerns about the AELTC’s claims about the ecological impact of their proposed development. The proposed engineered surfaces and buildings will replace natural surfaces and substantially deplete wildlife, despite the AELTC stating otherwise – in what can only be called appalling greenwash.

We use the word greenwash with care. We are extremely lucky to have Dr Dave Dawson’s expertise to call upon in relation to the proposed development on Wimbledon Park, with his wealth of expertise and long-standing interest in Wimbledon Park. Dr Dawson is a professional applied environmental scientist, specialising in environmental methodologies. He worked on environment, biodiversity, ecology, and nature conservation for London government from 1983 until 2006 and he was joint Head of the Mayor of London’s Environment Group. He developed Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation and Areas of Deficiency in Access to Nature and led work on the Mayor’s Biodiversity Strategy for London.

Biodiversity and Urban Greening are key elements of this proposed development, however the applicant has grossly overstated its case. On any basis there is bound to be a net deficiency. Dr Dawson has demonstrated that this is substantial, fails to meet London Plan requirements and so the application should be rejected. The applicant has made at least two attempts to get this right, on each occasion reducing the score so increasing the deficit. Merton planning department issued the most recent further attempt (which responded to Dr Dawson’s paper of 20 months ago) and invited comments within 15 days. With grateful thanks to Dr Dawson, a further representation has been made by local residents to the planning consultation to ensure the claims are properly scrutinised and rebutted.

Because the site is protected land, the Mayor of London must say whether or not the development is in line with the London Plan. It clearly is not and we very much hope the Mayor will not wave this through if Merton and Wandsworth councils give permission for the development to go ahead (which we expect them to do).

Concerns with Stage 1 and 2 process in relation to MOL and Green Belt in London

We’re very concerned the application is clearly not in line with London Plan policies. We are also worried that there is no formal process to make representations to the Mayor on this issue. We’re very aware that London Mayors, including the current Mayor, have previously allowed (not blocked) development on MOL – with their ‘Stage 1’ reports effectively giving the go ahead if certain conditions are met – stating that, although a development infringes London Plan policy, certain amendments / conditions could mitigate the harmful impact of the development. These conditions, in our view, often undermine the MOL policy itself and do not mitigate the harm to and indeed loss of protected land – and we are concerned a similar approach may be taken in this case.

Find out more about the Save Wimbledon Park campaign.