Wimbledon is braced for a legal challenge from its neighbours that threatens to delay or disrupt plans for the biggest expansion in its history.
A coalition of local residents’ associations around the All England Club is seeking high level advice on the legal status of a covenant that could stop or dilute building on the golf course it has acquired next door.
In addition local Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond, along with a significant number of local politicians, have declared their opposition to the scheme at SW19 as it stands.
The legal guidance being sought by at least three residents’ groups comes on the back more than 1,200 objections being lodged with Merton and Wandsworth councils by individuals or representative bodies.
The All England wants to build 39 new grass courts, including a new 8,000-seat stadium on the 73 acres currently occupied by Wimbledon Park golf course. This would fulfil its long-term goal of bringing the qualifying event ‘in house’ from its current venue two miles away in Roehampton.
750 members like Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly – were paid more than £80,000 each to quit the course three years ago
At the centre of the debate is a covenant placed on the land when it was sold to the AELTC for £5.2 million in 1993. This stated that it would not be built on. In 2018 the 750 members of the golf club – who included the likes of Piers Morgan and TV personalities Ant and Dec – were paid more than £80,000 each to quit the course.
Now, 28 years later, Wimbledon want to erect an eco-friendly new stadium plus a smattering of smaller structures on what is classed as Metropolitan Open Land.
As the subject of what are likely to be complex legal arguments, the Club believes this does not disallow their plans. Residents’ groups, however – who have in their ranks some highly-qualified lawyers – reckon they may have grounds for mounting a challenge.
The move could see qualifiers for Wimbledon play in-house rather than in Roehampton as they do currently
This threatens the ambition of Wimbledon to have qualifying moved by 2028, and to have the whole project completed by 2030.
The matter was discussed by a full meeting of Merton Council last week, with some councillors against it. The full application is expected to be heard around next February or March.
‘There appears to be a strong covenant signed 28 years ago that would prevent building,’ Hammond told Sportsmail. ‘I have asked for a meeting with the council for their view on how to protect the land. My own view is that the application as it is currently formed will need to be modified before I could support it.’
He is expecting to organise a public meeting in January for constituents to air their views. Local heritage group the Wimbledon Society have already called for the matter to be referred up to the Secretary of State.
Aside from concerns of over-development, local gripes include annual road closures and the weight of traffic required to build the site over the rest of the decade.
However, local opposition is far from universal and some are more quietly supportive of plans for an event which puts Wimbledon on the map and brings a huge boost to the local economy.
As part of it a new 23-acre park on the Capability Brown-sculpted land will be created for year-round public use with the nearby lake de-silted.
In response to comments made by the Wimbledon Park Residents’ Association, All England Chairman Ian Hewitt told them: ‘As to the assurances made in 1993, I am sure you can appreciate that the requirements of the club and the community have developed in the resulting 28 years, and that the AELTC has needed to work to ensure that The Championships remain a preeminent tennis tournament, and continue delivering significant and improved socioeconomic benefits to the local area.
Wimbledon want to erect an eco-friendly new stadium plus a smattering of smaller structures
‘We are confident that our proposals to enhance the land for the benefit of The Championships and more widely for the general public, which include the staging of the Qualifying Competition on the land, are consistent with our commitment to the local area, continuing the use of the land for leisure and recreational purposes.
‘They include the creation of significant public benefit, including the opening up of what was historically private land to provide the community with a new 9.4ha Public Park, alongside meaningful heritage, biodiversity and recreational benefits, and the associated local economic impact of enhancing The Championships.’
The All England Club is the biggest ratepayer in the Borough of Merton, where it is situated.
A spokesperson for the council said: ‘The All England Lawn Tennis Club’s application is currently under assessment and it will likely be decided by the Planning Committee: as yet we don’t have a committee date in mind as the application is still under assessment by officers.’
Even if planning permission is granted the covenant could lead to a separate legal challenge. A potential outcome is that Wimbledon may end up making some modifications to soothe local opinion while adding in some extra community benefits.