James Cracknell: What does Enfield Whitewebbs Park legal challenge mean for London boroughs’ open space?

James Cracknell: What does Enfield Whitewebbs Park legal challenge mean for London boroughs’ open space?

Despite losing 4-0 to Manchester United in the FA Cup Final on 12 May, there’s no doubt the Tottenham Hotspur Women’s team is on the up. It was only five years ago that the club won promotion to the Women’s Super League and turned professional. Until 2022, they were training at a school in Mill Hill.

But since opening the new Spurs stadium in 2019, the club’s chairman Daniel Levy has made the development of the women’s team one of his key long-term projects. He signalled his ambition last year when breaking the domestic transfer record in signing star striker Bethany England for a reported fee of £250,000.

One of the club’s top priorities is to create a women’s football training academy, ideally located close to the Tottenham Hotspur Training Centre where the men’s and youth teams train. This was opened in 2012 on a site in Bulls Cross, Enfield, and contains 17 football pitches.

A temporary training facility for the women’s team was opened two years ago within that existing site, but the club has set its sights on a much grander, permanent facility being built on Whitewebbs Park next door, with ten pitches dedicated solely to women’s and girls’ football.

This, to say the least, has proven controversial locally. Whitewebbs Park has been a public open space since 1931, when the estate surrounding Whitewebbs House was sold to Middlesex County Council “for the purposes of a public open space, public parks, walks, pleasure grounds and sports grounds”. The park was later inherited by Enfield Council following Middlesex’s absorption into Greater London.

Soon after the park was created, a municipal golf course was opened on its eastern side, designed by former Open champion John Henry Taylor. This remained until 2021, when the council closed it, cited high maintenance costs. Visitors were always able to walk through the course – indeed, the park’s main footpath bisected it – but as I once experienced myself on a jog through the park, they sometimes had to dodge errant golf balls.

The course’s closure had been on the cards since 2019, when the council began a tendering exercise to find an outside organisation to either run it on a commercial basis or perhaps suggest “other leisure uses and/or rewilding of the landscape”. Local residents had already sussed out what was going on. At an environment forum meeting at Enfield Civic Centre that year, council officers were asked directly whether Tottenham Hotspur was one of the bidders for the park.

Whitewebbs park (20)

A few months after the golf course’s closure in March 2021, the council confirmed the frontrunner for the lease was indeed Spurs, who hoped to use the park for its much-desired women’s football academy. The site, from the club’s view, was perfect. Essentially, only a footpath and a stream separated it from the existing Spurs training centre, and a direct link between the two sites would end up forming part of the plans.

Closing the golf course prior to agreeing the lease with Spurs, however, proved to be a strategic error on the council’s part. Suddenly, visitors to Whitwebbs were able to wander freely without fear of being hit on the head by a golf ball.

The area rewilded naturally, with flowers soon dotting the former fairways and greens. Dog-walkers no longer felt restricted to the paths and could allow their pets to roam across the sprawling site. While some residents still bemoaned the loss of the golf course and wanted it reopened, the main focus of the Save Whitewebbs campaign was on preserving the new openness of the park.

The proposed 25-year lease encompasses the whole area of the former golf course plus some of the adjoining woodland (54 per cent of the park in total), even though Tottenham Hotspur only needs to use a third of this area to create its women’s football academy.

However, in return for being allowed to fence off a site equivalent to 18 per cent of the park, the club has pledged to maintain the rest of the leased area as open parkland, while investing in biodiversity improvements, creating a new woodland area by planting 3,000 trees, and building a new visitor centre with a “community hub” and cafe (replacing an existing one).

It will give the council £1.5million up front, spend £500,000 on improvements to the park and, while only paying a peppercorn rent, save the civic centre £140,000 per year in reduced costs.

The lease was agreed by the council’s Labour administration in July 2023, although it will only commence once Spurs win planning permission for the women’s academy. An application has been submitted.

Whitewebbs park (10)

Enter, Friends of Whitewebbs Park chair Sean Wilkinson. The retired headteacher, a figurehead for the Save Whitewebbs campaign, has long threatened legal action. Last November, Wilkinson secured permission to launch a judicial review of Enfield’s decision to lease the land backed by tens of thousands of pounds raised from a crowdfunding campaign to pay for legal support from the Public Interest Law Centre. a

In February, a High Court judge heard three days of evidence. The two main questions to be addressed were, firstly, whether the council was within its rights to decide to enclose an area of a park it had acquired under a statutory trust to ensure “the public’s enjoyment of open space” and, secondly, whether, in making that decision it had followed due process.

The answer to first question has the biggest implications beyond the boundaries of Enfield, as it sets a legal precedent that could influence future attempts to enclose bits of land supposedly protected as open space.

Among such attempts elsewhere in London is the bid by the All England Lawn Tennis Club to build an 8,000-seat stadium on the golf course it owns at Wimbledon Park directly opposite its existing venue for the world’s most famous tennis tournament.

Merton Council granted planning permission for the development last year despite the existence of a covenant protecting the land as open space. (Neighbouring Wandsworth, which contains a small part of the application area, refused permission and the scheme as a whole is now in the hands of City Hall).

What has the judge decided? I attended the entire High Court hearing. While there was plenty of legal jargon to sit through, it proved to be a fascinating case and the written verdict, published last Friday, is indeed significant.

On the first ground for appeal – the claim that the council had “no power to dispose of a lease” under the Local Government Act 1972 “in such a manner that members of the public are unable to obtain access to some part of the park” – the judge ruled that because the proposed training facility will “have a social and educational element”, will “foster a large element of community access and support women’s and girls’ football locally” and will “not be confined to commercial football training” it should be allowed to proceed.

On the other three grounds – all relating to the council’s own decision-making process, including the claim councillors were “misled” by not being explicitly told about the park’s status as public trust land before voting to approve the lease – the judge also threw out Wilkinson’s case.

The implication is that, yes, councils do have the power to allow legally-protected open space to be permanently or semi-permanently enclosed, as long as it can be demonstrated that some level of community access will be retained, that there will be wider social benefits, and that there is at least a continuation of the type of activity (in this case, sporting) for which the open land was previously reserved.

On these points, supporters of the Save Whitewebbs campaign vehemently disagree. They still argue that Spurs and the council cannot be trusted to deliver the benefits they have promised, that access to the women’s training academy will be limited to elite athletes – most of whom will have no connection whatsoever to the borough of Enfield – and that the lease agreement itself is only of negligible financial benefit to the council.

In a statement issued in response to the judgement, Wilkinson warned that it “includes important decisions that adversely affect public open spaces in Enfield and potentially in the whole of London and beyond” and declared “this is far too important an issue for us to abandon the case”.

Might London borough councils now rush to fence off their parks to help plug holes in their budgets? In many cases, they already are. Haringey has received criticism for the many large events it hosts at Finsbury Park each year, many of which see significant sections of the park fenced off for weeks during the peak summer season. But the council argues that such events are needed for covering maintenance costs and to pay for improvements.

Several other London councils have made similar calculations when it comes to their parks, spurred on by repeated and severe cuts to their central government grants since 2010. It remains a balancing act for councils, often with outcomes people who enjoy these parks will no doubt continue to oppose.

The Save Whitewebbs campaign is not quietly going away. Harriet Child, a solicitor with the Public Interest Law Centre, confirmed that it would be seeking leave to appeal against the High Court verdict. She said:

“Public trust land was one of the great and radical advances to come out of the public backlash against development encroaching on people’s ability to access open space. It’s terribly sad that we’ve lost sight of that as a society. This judgment shows a willingness to sell land to private companies that people fought so hard to protect for the public nearly 100 years ago. We have earlier generations to thank for their existence and we need to safeguard them for the future. This has always been a fight led by grassroots campaigners and we cannot – and will not – give up now.”

James Cracknell is editor of the Enfield Dispatch. He took all the photographs accompanying this article. Follow James on X/Twitter. Support Onlondon.co.uk and its freelance writers for just £5 a month of £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.

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