Charles Wright: Wimbledon tennis expansion plans at deuce

Charles Wright: Wimbledon tennis expansion plans at deuce

Hot on the heels of Sadiq Khan’s decision to block the MSG Sphere at Stratford, City Hall has a similarly big call to make about another proposal for a major venue, this time on other side of the city at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) Wimbledon complex.

At stake is the tennis club’s controversial plan to expand its tennis amenities across the neighbouring golf course it owns by adding a new 8,000-seat grass court for its showcase Grand Slam tournament and 38 smaller ones to be used for the qualifying event and as practice facilities. There would also be a new 23-acre public park. The goal, in the club’s words, is to secure the “long-term future” of the Wimbledon tennis tournament as well as delivering “year-round benefits” for Londoners.

The site at stake is a historic one, dating originally from the 16th century, relandscaped in the 18th by Lancelot “Capability” Brown for the 1st Earl of Spencer, converted to a private golf course at the beginning of the 20th and now designated both a Grade II* registered park and garden and, in the London Plan, as Metropolitan Open Land, a status which gives it the same protection as the Green Belt.

The proposal – an image from which is shown above – is complicated by the fact that, while 90 per cent of the site is in Merton, the remainder is in Wandsworth, which means both councils’ planning committees have had a say. Cue a proliferation of “one set all” tennis analogies: Merton’s approved the scheme by six votes to four, but Wandsworth‘s unanimously rejected it.

As a major London development, the scheme must be referred up to City Hall in any event. There are mayoral powers to either let council decisions stand or to direct their refusal. But the borough stalemate seems likely to see the Mayor exercise his third option, which is, as with the Sphere, to take over the application and make a final decision himself. An update is expected in the New Year.

The site’s Metropolitan Open Land status is the key issue. London and national planning policies rule out any harmful development unless “very special circumstances” can be shown. All parties – Merton, Wandsworth and City Hall – agree that harm would be caused by the All England Club’s scheme, but that’s where the consensus ends.

Wandsworth’s planning officers said the scheme “would permit more public accessibility, provide larger levels of biodiversity, increase the provision of sports facilities and contribute to an increase in jobs and training opportunities in the borough,” But that was not enough for Wandsworth councillors.

Following the decision, council leader Simon Hogg said the committee could not “support the loss of green open space at Wimbledon Park and the loss of mature trees that was at the heart of this application. While we recognised that the scheme would offer a range of benefits to the area, this was outweighed by the impact on the open space as well as the increased pressure on local transport infrastructure.”

By contrast, Merton’s planners considered the scheme’s “substantial public benefits” did amount to those “very special circumstances”. Benefits listed included the enlarged tournament’s boost to the local, London and national economy and new landscaping, which it was anticipated would partly recreate a “parkland aesthetic”. The development as a whole was judged an “optimum viable use” for the site, with the show court likely to be an “exemplary piece of architecture”.

Importantly, Merton’s officers advised, this could be a last chance to actually protect the heritage landscape, currently deemed “at risk” by Historic England. It was “very unlikely there could be another institution that could jointly provide a predominantly open use of the land…and provide such significant investment…underpinned by heritage-led principles and design”, they said. Without that investment, it was thought the site is likely to deteriorate.

However, an impressive coalition of residents’ groups, Wimbledon’s Conservative MP Stephen Hammond and his Putney neighbour, Labour’s Fleur Anderson, plus the more than 16,000 signatories of a petition presented to Mayor Khan last week by Merton Liberal Democrat councillor and London Assembly member Hina Bokhari, don’t agree.

Objectors describe the development as a “tennis industrial complex”, which would almost treble the size of the existing tournament site and add nine kilometres of pathways along with ancillary buildings. At 28 metres high, the new show court is described as “similar in height to a 10-storey block of flats”. Building work and associated disturbance were estimated to last some eight years.

“The legacy and openness of the [Capability] Brownian landscape would be irreparably lost,” according to the Save Wimbledon Park grouping. “The proposals utterly destroy the fundamental openness of the park, with its unique heritage. The 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”.

Which way will City Hall go? The club has put up a vigorous case, accompanied by a warning from its chair Deborah Jevans, a former tennis professional and previously director of sport for the 2012 Olympics, that rejecting the plan would mean “we will not only fall behind as the crowning event in world tennis, but fail to grasp the wealth of social, environmental and economic benefits on offer to the whole of London”.

The club reckons the scheme will add £54.38 million to the UK economy, including £38.32 million within London, with new jobs and extra cash for grassroots tennis and other initiatives, including opening some of the courts for community use after the end of the annual championship event.

It argues that the new show court would take up only two per cent of the site, while the new park would provide permanent, all-year-round access outside the championship fortnight and qualifying event periods to what was “formerly a private members’ golf course for more than 100 years and inaccessible to anyone other than those who paid a green fee”.

“Veteran” trees are protected and new ones would be planted, producing a “net gain” of 1,500, and £8 million-worth of improvements are offered to the adjoining Wimbledon park and lake, a further remnant of the Capability Brown landscape now owned by Merton. “Our proposals,” the club says, “will significantly increase the extent and quality of biodiversity.”

The jury, in this case in the person of deputy mayor Jules Pipe rather than Mayor Khan himself, who has recused himself from the process having previously expressed some support for the scheme, is still out.

City Hall has consistently advised, from its first pre-application involvement in February 2021, that the scheme would constitute inappropriate development on Metropolitan Open Land unless those very special circumstances applied. Planning decisions are all about balance, and in October 2021, when the formal planning application was submitted, City Hall planners considered that they hadn’t been fully demonstrated.

There’s something of a shift from that position, though, in their latest comments provided to the two council committees towards the view that the scheme’s benefits – economic, social, heritage and ecological – as well as its boost to the prestige of the Wimbledon tournament, may now be considered sufficient to outweigh the harm the development will cause. But “further discussions and assurances” are still required, they say.

Meanwhile, as City Hall ponders, people across London have already had their say –  according to a YouGov poll commissioned by the All England Club, 58 per cent support its plans and just 11 per cent oppose them.

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