Battle lines drawn over Wimbledon expansion as local anger grows
Orange and white cones circle an expanse of what was once the fairway of Wimbledon Park Golf Club’s fourth hole.
Trees are marked up for removal except for a giant oak, which has stood for hundreds of years and is known as one of the 41 veterans which have a safe future.
Within the outline of the cones will stand an 8,000-seat tennis court, with a working title of Parkland Show Court, one of 38 courts the All England Club are planning to build to bring Wimbledon qualifying on site and also expand the boundaries of the annual Championships.
Looming imminently is the recommendation from Merton Council officers ahead of a much-delayed planning committee meeting in March or April, which will go a long way to deciding whether the controversial plans can go ahead. It had first been pencilled in for September, but has been steadily pushed back by the council.
Opponents to the plan have described it as a “David versus Goliath” battle against what they view as the might of the All England Club, and they claim that objection is growing. A petition against it has reached nearly 10,000 signatures, while 10,000 leaflets have been distributed in the local area.
The anger is at odds with the feel-good factor of Henman Hill, strawberries and cream and the Wimbledon fortnight.
Residents and campaign groups have come together — partly helped by a meeting in the back garden of Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond’s home — against the expansion, while Hammond and Putney MP Fleur Anderson have been unified in their objection, despite coming from rival political parties.
Anderson said: “This feels like a David versus Goliath campaign, but the tide is turning. [The club] can’t run roughshod over the objections. And the delay [to the planning decision] is giving cause for hope that they’re starting to listen and that changes can be made.”
The All England Club say they have made minor amendments to their proposals for the site, and that the delays are only because of the complexities and size of the plans.
They also say the overwhelming response has been positive to the plans, which open up land inaccessible to the public for more than 100 years with a new 23-acre public park.
There are a multitude of objections, however. One is the show court that became part of the plans when they were submitted in their entirety to both Merton and Wandsworth Council in July 2021 and will be the equivalent height of a 10-storey block of flats and 104 metres wide. There is also concern that there could be further disruption outside the Wimbledon fortnight, with the court used for other events, such as concerts. The All England Club say that is not in their plans.
The scale and duration of the entire project, which includes 9km of roads and pathways, involves 54,000 cubic metres of earth being shifted and will vastly increase the size of Wimbledon’s grounds, has also proved increasingly unpopular, with building work estimated to last until at least the end of the decade.
Thelma Ruby, an actress, whose home overlooks the site, said in a meeting with the objection groups: “My whole happiness depends on looking out on my view several times a day. At 97, I’m not going to live until it finishes. The rest of my life I’m going to be heartbroken, looking at a building site.”
There is also the environmental impact. Some 300 trees are set to be cut down, although the All England Club say they will replace them with 1,500 and that many of those 300 were inappropriate for the site and planted as part of the golf course.
The area in question was designed by Capability Brown in the 18th Century and formed part of the land owned by the Spencer family, ancestors of Princess Diana.
Chris Baker, director of the Capability Brown Society, called it an “act of vandalism”, describing the All England Club as “a behemoth trying to drive a tractor through [the land]”.
There is also the matter of the covenant between Merton Council and the All England Club, when the latter bought the golf course in 1993, over its future. Back then, All England Club chair John Curry said: “We completely understand and support everyone’s determination to keep the land open, and we purchased the land on that basis.”
I think, if rejected, the club can think again how to achieve its ambitions alongside those of residents.
Then-Merton Council leader Tony Colman said the council was “resolute that the land will be retained as open space. All England has bought the land knowing this is our policy and is aware that we should not allow development of the site”.
The All England Club argue they are retaining open space with their proposed public park, while opponents say they have lost faith in anything the club say.
Iain Simpson, head of the Wimbledon Park Residents Association, said: “The club’s ambitions and plans are far more important to it than the legal obligations it signed up to. Should we trust anything the All England Club says in the future?”
For the club, the first hurdles to overcome are the planning decisions by Merton and Wandsworth Councils, the former being of greater importance in that it covers more of the land in the proposal. Any decision would then go to the Mayor of London’s office and, potentially, the planning inspectorate at national level.
Sally Bolton, chief executive of the All England Club, said: “The AELTC Wimbledon Park Project will maintain the Championships at the pinnacle of the sport. This means delivering world-class facilities, as well as setting the highest possible standards for the environmental, social, economic and community benefits we will unlock.
“Central to our proposals is the opening up of land which has been inaccessible to the public for over 100 years, including the creation of a new 23-acre public park, a new accessible boardwalk around Wimbledon Park lake, the community use of the proposed new courts and facilities.
“It is our hope that these benefits, alongside many others, such as an increase in biodiversity of the site and the planting of 1,500 trees, will provide a lasting legacy for the local community to enjoy for years to come.”
The club remain confident their plans meet all the necessary requirements, but neither they, nor the objection groups, are clear how it will all play out.
Those against would like the club to go back to the drawing board and dilute the extent of their plans.
As Wimbledon MP Hammond said: “Without some reconfiguration, I’m opposed to this application. I think if, as I hope, it is rejected by the planning committee, the All England can think again how to achieve its ambitions alongside those of the local residents.”