A planning application to triple the size of Wimbledon’s tennis facilities has moved forward, placing the future of London's green spaces under threat, campaigners say.
Merton Council, in south-west London, voted in favour of the All England Lawn Tennis Club plans following a five-hour meeting on Thursday evening.
The proposal would lead to 38 new courts, including a new 8,000-seat show court, being built on protected land, neighbouring Wimbledon Park, which used to be owned by a golf club.
Wrangling over the plans began about two years ago, when the club first submitted the proposals for the world-famous tennis tournament, leaving residents “flabbergasted” by their scale.
The site it wants to build on is classed as Metropolitan Open Land, a form of protection that treats green spaces in London in a similar way to the green belt.
In a 450-page report, Merton Council's planning officers concluded that the development would be “inappropriate” and cause “physical harm” to the Metropolitan Open Land, but said this was outweighed by the “very substantial public benefits” of the proposal and that these benefits constituted “very special circumstances” justifying development on protected land.
In a statement released to The National, Sally Bolton, Chief Executive of the All England Club, said the club was "delighted" by the borough's decision to approve the plans.
“Our proposals will both secure the future of The Championships for generations to come by bringing Qualifying to SW19, and provide a transformation in community amenities - including a new 23 acre park for everyone to enjoy on land which has been inaccessible to the public for over 100 years," she said.
“We now look forward to the decision of Wandsworth Council’s Planning Committee in the coming weeks.”
The campaign group Save Wimbledon Park called the decision an "absolute outrage".
Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, the group said: "This has galvanised support AGAINST this appalling decision @Merton_Council has shown their attitude to declared Climate Emergency is fake. This is NOT over. On to next stage."
Local Labour MP Fleur Anderson told The National she is "deeply disappointed" by the "incredibly close", decision, which passed with six votes in favour and four against.
"The campaign is not over. The online petition has now reached over 13,000 signatures and hundreds of residents have written in to our local councillors.
"I am now urging Wandsworth Councillors to reject these proposals, not just for residents of South West London who rely on the Park for their access to nature and wellbeing, but for public green space across the country."
Stephen Hammond, the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, said the project “pretty much contravenes every recommendation” regarding Metropolitan Open Land.
“If you read the officers' report, there's a whole chunk of it which effectively says this offends every planning policy, and then says because there are very special circumstances we're going to let it through," he said.
The council said benefits of the development included the impact on employment and the local economy, ecology and biodiversity enhancement, and improved access to sport and recreation facilities provided as part of the development, said the report.
Mr Hammond said that the decision meant “no park or green space in Merton really can ever be assured of protection again, that's also true for London”.
“There's nothing to stop every developer pointing to this case and saying you can build on Metropolitan Open Land in London," he said.
“You can see another developer saying, 'I'm building you a lovely new community sports stadium but I need to put 50 flats by the side of it to justify it', you can see those sorts of applications potentially coming in as a result of this.”
The proposals will now be reviewed by the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, due to the development taking place on Metropolitan Open Land.
There may also be further stages before the facilities can be built including, potentially, a call-in by Communities Secretary Michael Gove or a judicial review by local residents opposed to the scheme.
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A London Borough of Merton official said: “After considering the officer's report, relevant submissions, and the relevant planning framework, the independent planning committee, made up of councillors from all parties, voted to approve the application made by the All England Lawn Tennis Ground for expansion of its site at Wimbledon.
“There are further stages in the planning process and the land remains subject to covenants contained in the transfer of 1993 from the council to AELTG.
“Until these covenants are properly addressed by AELTG they operate to restrict the use and development of the land as proposed in the planning application.”
The All England Lawn Tennis Ground is a subsidiary of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.