Wimbledon Expansion Could Have "National Ramifications" For Building On Protected Land
The All England Club has argued an expansion will help to maintain the Wimbledon Championships as a local and national asset (Alamy)
As the expansion of Wimbledon’s tennis courts is hit with further delays, local MP Stephen Hammond has urged all sides to improve the application, arguing that the proposed development could have “national ramifications”.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) is the venue that hosts the world-famous Wimbledon Championships – which is the only Grand Slam tennis event still held on grass courts.
A proposed expansion and development of Wimbledon Park by the club has divided opinions over the last few years, with the AELTC proposing the construction of a new 8,000-seater court, 39 new courts to host the Wimbledon Qualifying Competition, and a new public park.
The proposals would be built on the site of a golf club and parklands – and would be a rare instance of development on Metropolitan Open Land (MOL), which has the same protections as the Metropolitan Green Belt around London.
As parliament enters summer recess, Hammond insisted it is not a holiday for MPs, many of whom head back to their constituencies and have a “huge number of emails” and campaigns to trawl through. For the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, the tennis club expansion is one issue that is particularly contentious among residents.
“This affects one part of the constituency, but it has quite big national ramifications because we're talking about building on Metropolitan Open Land,” Hammond told PoliticsHome.
“It would be a real precedent, so I suspect that even if the application passes both Wandsworth and Merton council planning committees – which it has to do – it's almost certain to be called in by the Greater London Authority because of the scale of this as a development in London.”
Hammond added that he would expect the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities would also want to consider the application if it is approved by the local councils.
Although the club has said the scheme would bring “substantial public benefit” to the area, many campaigners, residents and politicians have expressed concerns about the size of the proposed plans and how much the development might restrict public access to the surrounding land.
Hammond is united with neighbouring Labour MP for Putney Fleur Anderson in opposition to the proposals. Last year, the two MPs published a joint statement outlining their position.
“The fact that Stephen and I have put out this statement shows that the issue goes beyond party politics and that the concern is not just for local residents,” Anderson wrote.
“This is about the protection of our green spaces and maintaining our environment for future generations. Local people aren’t being listened to and the AELTC are overriding their concerns.”
The Save Wimbledon Park group, which was set up last year, has organised a petition which has reached more than 12,000 signatures opposing the development of Wimbledon Park Golf Club.
Hammond said it is not a case of “never”, but that he believes there are many parts of the planning application that have yet to be ironed out.
“Absolutely I buy the argument that they want to have their qualifying there and they want to have grass courts there, but I’m not sure they need 39 extra courts.
“There are some issues about the public park: It would be brilliant to have more of Wimbledon Park as public access, but we need to be clear about the guarantee of that public access, and guarantees about where the maintenance and building is going to be so there's less people driving through there.”
The proposals have been repeatedly stalled, with the application now set to be heard by Merton and Wandsworth councils in September. If approved, the project would likely be completed by 2030 at the earliest.
Responding to criticism from campaigners, the AELTC has argued that the plans would expand public access to the land, as the golf club had been private, and that a new public park would encourage community use of the site.
Sally Bolton, AELTC Chief Executive, said: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity not only to cement London’s position as a global leader in world class sporting venues, but also to create this extraordinary new public park for our local community, significantly increasing access to green space and providing an important sanctuary for nature.”
The Wimbledon MP described how two years ago, there had been meetings between the All England Club and local residents to discuss possible solutions, but said “unfortunately” discussions were no longer at the place.
“What I'd really like us to see, and I don't think it's going to happen just yet, is for all sides to sit down again and say, let's have another crack at this and see whether we can sort out an application that works for everybody.
“The likelihood at the moment is that we'll go through the planning process and then we'll see what happens at that point.”
Hammond has been an MP for 18 years and has yet to decide whether he will stand again in the next general election, expected in 2024.
“It's been a great honour and a great privilege, and I'm hoping to run the next general election,” he told PoliticsHome.
“But I haven't made any final decisions, partly because I still have four parents and parents-in-law and there are quite big care pressures that I need to think about.
“My wife and my daughter have been incredibly supportive of me over my political career. There comes a time when you have to think of them as well.”
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