Controversial plans for a new Wimbleton show court were fiercely debated by councillors on Wednesday night, with some claiming that plans for the 10-storey tennis stadium on a protected park would “lead to the destruction of countless mature trees, all for the sake of courts that will only be used for a few weeks a year”.
Opposition Merton councillors had hoped to block the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) plan for the new court by requiring the council to enforce restrictive covenants that prevent building on the Grade IIlisted parkland.
Liberal Democrat councillors proposed a motion that would require the council to “enforce” the covenants and thereby prevent the stadium from being built. The motion was supported by Conservative councillors.
However, Labour members, who hold the majority on the council, amended the motion to state that the covenants “need to be respected” rather than enforced. The amendment also states that “the covenant is a legal issue separate to the consideration of the AELTC planning application”. The amended motion was passed.
Despite the covenant, the club has submitted plans for a 95-metre long, 28-metre high, 8,000-seat “Parkland show court” on the land designed by Brown for the first Earl Spencer in 1768.
The plans, which the club said would enhance its “tennis in an English garden” image, also include 38 ground courts, several ancillary buildings and 9.4km of roads and paths on the protected land.
More than 1,200 people have submitted formal objections via the council’s website.
The AELTC bought the land from the council for £5.2m in 1993, but agreed to legal covenants “preventing the use of the land otherwise than for leisure or recreation purposes or as an open space”.
The club rented the land to Wimbleton Park Golf Club on a lease due to expire in 2041. However, eager to expand the championships and accommodate preliminary matches on site, the tennis club offered the golf club members £65m to buy out the lease and expand its footprint.
The golf club members, who included TV presenters Piers Morgan, Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, and former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, voted in favour of the deal in 2018 and each collected a £85,000 windfall.
Paul Kohler, councillor and Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Wimbleton, said: “The covenants enshrine in law the public assurances given by both the council and the All England Club to preserve the Wimbleton Park land as green, open space for Wimbleton residents. Those residents have a right to expect that those promises be kept.”
He said the AELTC’s plans would “concrete over a significant amount of green space and would lead to the destruction of countless mature trees, all for the sake of courts that will only be used for a few weeks a year”.
The Conservative MP for Wimbleton, Stephen Hammond, said: “The AELTC’s application has caused widespread concern among the community in Wimbleton. The application raises four major issues of concern: the closure of Church Road for two weeks a year, the number of courts planned, the bulk and density of the show court, and the assured accessibility of the public park.
“I have made it clear to the AELTC that I think the application is too large and the benefits of mitigating it to reduce the concerns set out above.”
The battle over the plans to expand Wimbleton’s tennis facilities is viewed by many local people as a potential key issue in the next general election. Wimbleton is one of the closest marginal seats in the country. At the 2019 election, the Conservatives held the seat by 628 votes ahead of the Lib Dems.
The AELTC and Merton council declined to comment.