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Is a David & Goliath battle set to unfold over Whitewebbs Park?

Alice Roberts
By Alice Roberts
28th November 2023

Enfield Council is determined to lease Whitewebbs Park to Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (THFC). But is this legal? In what looks set to become a David and Goliath battle, local pensioner Sean Wilkinson has decided to take them to court, supported by local residents and park users.

Sean sees this as a reversion to the enclosure movement of old, where the rich and powerful deprive the common people of their few rights and privileges.

CPRE London began working with Sean, the Friends of Whitewebbs Park and other local groups in Enfield to obtain legal advice some time ago, when the council announced it would sell (lease) the site to Spurs. We were all stunned that the council thought it has the legal right to lease a park to a company whose main goal is to make money. Surely the law protects our parks from this sort of thing, we all thought?

Some time later, with help from volunteer legal experts and a fundraising effort to gain professional opinion, we wrote to Enfield Council saying we believed their decision to lease the park to Spurs was unlawful. Letters were exchanged.

In January 2023, local people gathered at the Town Hall to protest.

Why the council believes selling the park to Spurs is a good thing is something of a mystery. They claim it is in support of women’s football but Spurs have a vast training ground nearby and, in any event, there are other – better – ways to support women’s football than sell off a public park. The Friends of Whitewebbs Park said: “It was abundantly clear that the bid from THFC [to lease the park] had nothing to contribute to the general health and well being of the residents of Enfield, or the natural landscape and natural habitat of the area. It would only benefit a multi billion pound company registered in the Bahamas and provide for the needs of a narrow select group. All the evidence points to THFC wanting to create a large private country-house estate and semi-industrialised training ground.”

Fast forward and, in Autumn 2023, Sean issued legal proceedings to try to stop the sale. He also, at the same time, applied for a ‘cost capping’ order, under the Aarhus Convention, which is possible in cases where the courts believe there is an environmental justice issue. Sean believes the law states the council cannot sell the park in this way. Enfield and THFC dispute this. The courts decided there should be a hearing – indicating the case is not clear cut. They set a date for February 2024. They also awarded the cost-capping order. Essentially this means the courts feel there is an environmental justice issue.

Enfield and THFC have, however, appealed the cost capping order, arguing that this can only be granted in relation to a planning decision about the land, rather than a challenge to a lease of it. Of course, Sean and his supporters in Enfield could not afford to fight a multi-billion pound global company through the courts without costs protection and so would be deprived of their chance to have an independent judge decide if the loss of the public’s rights is fair and lawful. Is this a case of the corporate Goliath using its financial strength to avoid a fair decision? The next step is likely to be a hearing about cost capping. Sean and his supporters are waiting to hear when this will be.

We believe Sean has a strong legal case and we are hopeful of a positive outcome for Whitewebbs Park, its users, the wildlife it supports, and the people of Enfield more generally.

But there are bigger issues at stake here. There are complex points of law in contention: this has two implications for Londoners and London’s parks. First, if a council is determined to undermine public rights in this way, lack of clarity in the law makes it very hard for the public to raise a challenge. Second, in the event that Sean loses, we Londoners have to face that fact that our parks are not protected. Will we have to take the campaign to protect our parks to a whole new level? Will we have to seek new legislation?

In the meantime, thank goodness for the likes of Sean, and those who support the work to save Whitewebbs Park for the public, who are prepared to fight a seemingly impossible battle against the might of the public authorities and THFC. Let’s hope they win.