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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Felix Keith

Inside the bitter argument for Wimbledon's future raging behind the scenes in SW19

What could be more English than Wimbledon, strawberries and cream and Pimms in the weak summer sunshine? How about a bitter row over a planning application?

The Championships get under way at the All England Lawn Tennis Club on Monday. Thousands of people will descend on SW19 to enjoy some world-class tennis, the serene environment and the high-class catering on offer.

As they walk down the road from Southfields Station, or down the hill from Wimbledon Village, they will have their eyes fixed on Centre Court and the other buildings which make up the iconic site. Across the road there isn’t much to look at, besides some overflow parking, but that land holds the keys to Wimbledon’s future.

The plot of land across Church Road used to be the home of Wimbledon Park Golf Club, but all golfing activity ceased on January 1. It now lies in wait, with the All England Club hoping it will play host to 38 new grass courts in the near future.

The club bought the land from Merton Council in 1993 for £5.1million and, in 2018, offered the golf club £65m to end its lease early. The deal was accepted, with every member of the club – including celebrities like Ant and Dec – receiving a cool £85,000 in exchange for finding a new place to play golf.

Money was exchanged to enable the All England Club to expand its site. They want to bring Wimbledon in line with the other three tennis majors by hosting qualifying on site, rather than in nearby Roehampton. After a consultation process, an application was submitted to Merton and Wandsworth Councils, with a 23-acre public park included along with the 38 grass courts and a 8,000-seater show court.

So far, so fairly straightforward. What the All England Club perhaps didn’t bargain for was the level of opposition their idea would receive. With the Championships here, the application is in a state of gridlock, with furious local residents and MPs united in opposition and armed with what they believe is a compelling legal precedent to block the development.

'Land grab for industrial development'

The All England Club wants to build on the old golf course, pictured on the right (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, Southfields and Roehampton, says that initially the plans received a warm reception from locals. But the more they have heard about it and the more fractious consultations were held, the more opposition has grown.

“It’s blocking really valuable green space away from the people who should own it – the residents – and it’s the AELTC having a land grab for an industrial development and trying to make it look as though it’s a nice project for a new park, which it’s not,” she tells Mirror Sport.

“The AELTC are saying we’re building part of it for a new stadium and part of it to give back to the community. Actually they’re not giving back to the community – I think it’s a misrepresentation of the proposal, trying to come up with something that we will agree with.”

The show court and the surrounding area (Allies & Morrison / AELTC)

There is cross-party opposition to the plans. Stephen Hammond, Conservative MP for Wimbledon, has previously enjoyed cordial relations with the All England Club and was invited every year as a guest. Tellingly he has not been invited to this year’s Championships since voicing his opposition.

Hammond has represented Wimbledon since 2005 and describes the application as one of the most contentious he’s come across. “I oppose this application because it’s too big for the area,” he says. “I believe that local residents want to find a compromise and I want to work with local residents and the All England Club to find that solution.”

Mistrust and division

Currently a compromise appears a long way off, with Iain Simpson, chairman of the Wimbledon Park Residents Association, offering a sense of the anger towards the All England Club.

“The size of the development is just totally unacceptable. It’s a ridiculous application,” he tells Mirror Sport from the Wimbledon Club, a sports complex which lies right in the middle of the proposed expansion. “If you think of all the obstacles lying in front of them, in terms of development, it’s just a smack in the face for anything that we could possibly rely on in terms of legal obligations. Basically, nobody trusts them anymore.”

Simpson and his fellow objectors insist this is about much more than just nimbyism – they have 11,800 signatures behind their petition and believe they also have the law on their side. Christopher Coombe, a retired lawyer who specialised in commercial property development, has laid out the local residents’ case, which centres on two aspects.

The club wants to build a further 38 grass courts (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

HAVE YOUR SAY! What do you make of the proposed expansion of Wimbledon? Comment below.

Firstly, when the land was sold to the All England Club in 1993, a restrictive covenant said it should be used for leisure or recreational purposes and not to build on. Secondly, and Coombe believes most pertinently, there is legal precedent which could scupper the plans.

The group have paid close attention to a case called Day v Shropshire in which the Supreme Court ruled Shropshire Council should not have allowed a housing developer to build on parkland in Shrewsbury. The land had been in a statutory trust, which said it should be kept for recreational use.

Coombe and the three other lawyers in the group, who have 160 years experience in the field, see clear parallels between the two cases. Merton Council bought the land in 1965 on trust for the public, but when the freehold of the golf course was sold to the All England Club in 1993 they did not release it from the trust. He believes, therefore, that the land is still technically in trust for the public and cannot be built on, even if the council grants planning permission.

What the new grass courts would look like (Allies & Morrison / AELTC)

“We’ve researched extensively how Merton [Council] dealt with the sale in 1993 and they are absolutely identical, the circumstances,” Coombe says.

“It (the application) is stuck because the All England are now trustees for the public. They may find that hard to accept and, of course, there may be some litigation. We believe that is pushing them towards a compromise. We think they ought to be thinking again, realising they've overstepped the mark.”

No compromise on the table

Over the hedge from the opposition hub of the Wimbledon Club, the All England Club are not concerned, however. Mirror Sport was taken on a tour of the site by Justin Smith, head of estate development at the All England Tennis Club, who does not carry the demeanour of a man burdened with legal wranglings which could halt his work.

He believes the plans qualify for leisure and recreation, pointing to the fact that the grass courts will be open to AELTC members not during Wimbledon, while one section will be designated as community access and will be bookable to local residents during the grass court season of May to September. As for the opposition’s smoking gun – Day v Shropshire – he says: “We don’t believe it applies to this at all.”

A view of the 8,000 show court and grass courts surrounding it (Allies & Morrison / AELTC)

Smith also rejects criticism of the scale of the plans. Yes, 38 courts are a lot, but they are needed so they can be rotated to keep the grass in good condition and so that players don’t need to share courts to warm up, as is currently the case. “They are natural grass, they’re not a major imposition on the landscape – it’s not like putting a load of hard courts on,” he added.

As far as the All England Tennis Club is concerned, a compromise is not needed.

“It’s an interesting position that they’ve taken, because they haven’t suggested what the compromise is,” Smith says. “What I hear is ‘It’s too big?’ OK, so lots of grass courts – why are they too big? Other people would say to us, when we’ve done these consultations, ‘It’s a lot of grass courts in a grass area’.

“The [8,000-seater] stadium is obviously something slightly different, a scalable building is new to the site. We have to prove the benefit it would offer outweighs any harm or negativity of the building itself, which is what we’ve tried to show in our planning application.

An aerial view of the proposed Wimbledon expansion (Allies & Morrison / AELTC)

“It’s democracy in action and democracy is for all people, including the All England Club. I think this is part of the strength of the planning process – it tests things out. We have to prove things, people are testing us and the local authority and we are dealing with those tests as best we can. I think that’s where ‘it’s too big’ and ‘a compromise needs to be made’ isn’t very part of that system – you really need to say ‘there shouldn’t be this because of this’. There needs to be a proper reasoning behind those sorts of statements.”

The All England Club still hope that their application will be heard by Merton and Wandsworth Councils in September. If things drag on it will be up to the Mayor of London or even the Secretary of State to decide.

Over the next two weeks there will be hundreds of mini battles being waged on the grass courts in SW19. Behind the scenes, another rages for the tournament’s future.

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