Forget the tennis. A much bigger match will take place in Wimbledon next week as the All England Lawn Tennis Club takes on another local council over its plan to build an 8,000-seat stadium on a Grade II*-listed park.
The AELTC will on Tuesday night attempt to convince Wandsworth’s planning committee to vote through its proposal to build the 10-storey show court and 38 other grass courts on Wimbledon Park. Campaigners have described the proposals as an “industrial tennis complex”.
The 155-year-old club succeeded last month in winning the approval of the planning committee of the neighbouring authority, Merton, but a small triangle of the park lies within Wandsworth’s boundaries. The AELTC requires the permission of both councils and the mayor of London (and possibly Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities) in order to go ahead with the project.
Wandsworth’s planning officers recommended on Monday that councillors vote to refuse the proposed development because it would “cause substantial harm to the openness of metropolitan open land”. In their 123-page report the officers said they do not believe the club’s claim that there were “very special circumstances” to warrant approving the building work that would almost triple the size of the tennis championship grounds from 17 hectares (42 acres) to 46 hectares.
The All England club argues that it desperately needs to expand and increase its facilities to ensure that the Wimbledon grand slam “remains the world’s premier tennis tournament”.
Wandsworth’s 10-member planning committee will meet to vote on the proposal at the borough’s town hall on Tuesday night. Hundreds of local and environmental campaigners are planning to protest at the meeting. Merton’s planning meeting on the subject last month went on until almost midnight after being interrupted by demonstrators declaring the council chamber a “climate crime scene”.
The plans have angered many local residents and environmental groups, who argue the park should be left as open space. More than 14,000 people have signed a petition to “save Wimbledon Park” and in excess of 2,000 letters of objection have been received by the councils.
Almost 300 trees would be removed to allow the All England club’s building plans, which some locals described as “corporate ecocide”. The club said most of the trees are “poor quality” and said it will plant 1,500 new ones.
Fleur Anderson, the Labour MP for Putney, said: “Wimbledon Park is protected, Grade II*-listed metropolitan open land. This means that ‘very special circumstances’ must be proved for it to be built on. Wandsworth council planning officers have not found that these ‘very special circumstances’ exist and so have recommended the plans be refused. The campaign continues. Our precious green space must be defended. But this is a very positive step in the right direction.”
A spokesperson for the All England club said: “We are surprised that planning officers at the London borough of Wandsworth have recommended refusal of the AELTC Wimbledon Park project, particularly after the London borough of Merton resolved to approve the application following extensive analysis and debate both in their officers’ report and at the planning committee.
“We regret that Wandsworth’s officers have taken a different view but it is for councillors on the planning applications committee to make their own considered decision at the meeting at 21 November.”
The club said at least seven of the proposed new grass courts would be made available for the local community to play on for a two-month period after the championships, and said it would allocate 500 tickets in the proposed new Parkland stadium for Merton and Wandsworth residents to buy.
The Merton councillor Paul Kohler, who is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Wimbledon, described the club’s plans as “an industrial tennis complex – comprising a 10-storey stadium, more than 9km [5.5 miles] of roads, 10 further outbuildings and 38 tennis courts”.
The AELTC first set its sights on expanding into Wimbledon Park in 1993 when it bought the freehold of the land from Merton council for £5.2m. But it signed a covenant agreeing that it would “not use the [land] other than for leisure or recreational purposes or as an open space”.
Kohler has called on Merton to act to enforce the covenants. “They were included to ensure this important piece of metropolitan open land could never be built upon and meant the All England club paid a greatly reduced price for the land,” Kohler said.
The club rented the land to Wimbledon Park golf club until 2018 when its chair said he feared the SW19 championships would fall behind its competitors in New York, Paris and Melbourne if it did not expand and offer greater facilities for players and spectators. The obvious place to expand, he said, was on to the golf club.
However, the golf club’s lease on the land lasted until 2041, so the AELTC could not take back the land for another 23 years. The tennis club offered the golf club members £65m to give up their club early. That worked out as an £85,000 windfall for every member, including Piers Morgan, Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, and Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary.