Wimbledon residents say the All England Lawn Tennis Club has double faulted with its plans to significantly expand the site in south-west London by building on protected land without getting locals on board.
The community in the affluent village recently held a standing-room-only meeting to discuss the proposals, which if realised, will lead to the construction of 38 new tennis courts and an 8,000-seat show court on the former Wimbledon Park Golf Club site.
“It was a very big turn-out, much bigger than we expected,” said Iain Simpson, a member of the community group opposed to the plans.
“People have come back to us and said they didn’t really realise how big this application was. How big the proposal is,” he told The National.
“It’s massive, and very environmentally destructive.”
Wimbledon's Conservative MP Stephen Hammond spoke at the meeting to call for "community activism".
A 'Save Wimbledon Park' petition now has 12,600 signatures.
Mr Simpson said the wrangling began about two years ago, when the club first submitted the plans for the world-famous tennis tournament, leaving residents “flabbergasted” by the scale of the proposals.
The land it wants to build on is classed as Metropolitan Open Land, the urban equivalent of a green belt.
All England bought the site from the golf club in 1993, paying members each £80,000 on the basis that it would not be developed.
“They signed covenants to that effect on the purchase,” Mr Simpson told The National.
“So now they are trying to ignore the covenants, the agreements they made in 1993, and trying to say well times have changed, haven’t they and we need to expand.”
The plans have not yet been discussed by Merton and Wandsworth councils, which each have to approve them because the site sits within both boroughs, having been pushed back several times.
The community, backed by its local MPs – aims to frustrate the planning application and force the club back to the drawing board to consult residents on what might be suitable, Mr Simpson said.
Labour MP Fleur Anderson, whose Putney constituency also covers part of the site, told The National that Roehampton, where the qualifiers are currently held, would “absolutely love” the investment of more qualifying courts.
“However, on Wimbledon Park, it's not very welcome because it's a very valuable green space.
"And a lot of people do not have gardens. They don't have access to green spaces.
“So it's even more important. But I really think it's not just about people overlooking the site. It's not that kind of nimbyism. It's much more about the climate emergency and saving our green spaces.”
Ms Anderson said she, like many others, liked the sound of the proposals to start with.
But she said the sentiment turned the more she heard about it. Part of the area will revert to a public park. However, it will be closed for “two of the best months of the year”.
“And there's no protection over it. So it could be sold off or built on at any time,” she added.
Sally Bolton, chief executive of the All England Club, told The National the plans "will maintain The Championships at the pinnacle of the sport, by bringing qualifying to SW19, and providing substantial year-round benefits for the local community".
“Central to our proposals is the opening up of land on what was a private golf course, which has been inaccessible to the public for over 100 years, to create a beautiful 23-acre public park, a new accessible boardwalk around Wimbledon Park lake, and community use of the proposed new courts and facilities," she said.
“We are delighted that over 4,600 attendees have attended one of our engagement events and the overwhelming majority of people who have spoken to our team, and seen our plans in situ, have been incredibly supportive and are eager to see the substantial community benefits delivered, as soon as planning permission is granted and work can commence.”
Wimbledon through the years - in pictures
The scale of the plans is also daunting, with 38 courts, the new show court, nine kilometres of tarmac between the courts and lots of new small buildings for equipment across the whole site.
“It seemed to be less and less of a good investment in our area, and much more of a very, very concerning one," Ms Anderson said.
“I think now the majority of people oppose it. Whereas that wasn't the case, maybe a year ago, but the strength of feeling is growing and people are finding out more and more about it.”
Mr Simpson and Ms Anderson both said the club has also refused to change the plans, despite the community’s concerns.
“During Covid about two years ago, I held a meeting for all the local residents associations' representatives to meet with the chief executive and it was on Zoom, as everything was then.
“Right at the end of that Sally Bolton, the chief executive, said there is no plan B, it's all or nothing. And then she keeps saying well, we're having consultations and we're having lots of meetings.
“Yes, they're having lots of rounds, showing their plans, but it doesn't mean they will change them at all. And that's really disappointing.”
Ms Anderson said they have suggested placing the public part of the proposal into a trust so it cannot be built on in the future. But all suggestions have so far been dismissed.
“They are trying to do something which is extraordinary, to build on metropolitan open land, it's almost without precedent.
“So it also creates a dangerous precedent for other valuable protected green spaces in the future.”