Wimbledon’s ‘critical’ expansion plans spark controversy in SW19: ‘The locals feel that Wimbledon used to hold a special place in their hearts. Now, it’s just a big, money-driven machine’

The All England Lawn Tennis Club's ambitious plans to expand into Wimbledon Park have caused consternation among local residents. Annunciata Elwes reports.

Controversy has arisen over the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s (AELTC) plans to develop 73 acres of Capability Brown-designed, Grade II*-listed landscape, currently a golf course, within Wimbledon Park, building 38 grass tennis courts and an 8,000-seat show court.

The tennis club currently occupies 42 acres, leaving 45 acres open to the public. The aim of the expansion is to relocate the qualifying rounds from Roehampton, so that more fans can enjoy an internationally important event that, according to the AELTC, generates ‘a TV and digital audience of 1.2 billion people every year and [supported] an estimated £327 million of economic activity across the UK in 2019’. These plans are ‘critical for our future and competition with other Grand Slam events,’ says AELTC head of estate development Justin Smith.

The 1st Earl Spencer inherited the manor at Wimbledon from the Duchess of Marlborough when he was 10 years old and ‘the richest schoolboy in England’; he commissioned Brown to sculpt the landscape between 1765 and 1783, the product of which, with its lake, woods and grasslands, has far outlived the house itself.

The AELTC says the project will create a new 23-acre park — one of the largest areas of private land in London with public access, open year round except during the championships — and open up views that have not been seen in years. Organisers point out ‘significant ecological enhancements and a biodiversity net gain’, plus plans to repair the landscape to Brown’s original layout, doubling the number of trees, as well as protecting veteran specimens. The lake is at risk of becoming bogland if it’s not regularly de-silted and its ecosystem would be improved.

The AELTC’s new Wimbledon expansion plans include developing some 73 acres of
The AELTC’s new Wimbledon expansion plans include developing some 73 acres of Wimbledon Park, creating 38 new courts and an 8,000-seat show court.

Iain Simpson, chairman of the Wimbledon Park Residents’ Association, feels that this sort of ‘permissive access’ is not enough to obscure 73 acres of ‘heavily protected land being effectively ripped up’. He continues: ‘Each of the 38 grass courts will be surrounded by concrete ring beams a metre deep, with extensive meandering roads and hard-surface pathways, plus nine other buildings, not to mention the new 100ft-high show court. It’s a very significant development.’

Among other opposing bodies is SAVE, which has lodged an objection, and the Capability Brown Society; Chris Baker, its director, says the ‘disastrous’ scheme would ‘destroy the contours’ of the land and Brown’s lake.

‘Back in 1993, when the AELTC purchased the freehold of the golf-club site, then chairman John Currie promised there would not be any development, and Merton Borough Council was “resolute” the landscape would remain untouched,’ adds Mr Baker. ‘Then, in 2018, AELTC bought the lease for £63 million; the club has had its eye on the golf course for tennis for a long time. The locals and neighbours feel that Wimbledon used to hold a special and unique place in their hearts. Now, it’s just a big, money-driven machine,’ says Mr Baker.

‘Furthermore,’ adds Mr Simpson, ‘the council imposed a covenant in the 1993 transfer deed to keep the land free from any future building. As recently as 2014, the AELTC issued a statement that a Mail on Sunday article detailing future plans for the golf course was “wholly inaccurate and a complete fabrication”.

‘None of this has presented any obstacle to their ambitions. When I wrote to the club chairman Ian Hewitt recently, he responded: “I am sure you can appreciate that the requirements of the club and the community have developed in the resulting 28 years.” We expect and require Merton to enforce the covenant.’

‘We respect heritage,’ insists Mr Hewitt. ‘We embrace our responsibility to society.’ Actually, adds Mr Smith, ‘Brown’s ideas are ones that we want to re-use. We’ll be opening up space around the grounds in keeping with the way he originally created the park, putting in clumps of trees rather than fairways and restoring some of the lake edge to the same shape.’

As the 73-acre site is split between two jurisdictions, the club has had to submit applications to both Merton and Wandsworth councils, and with a consultation period now at an end, decisions are expected between October and December. Construction work could start in early 2022, with the first qualifying event in 2028 and the new Parkland Show Court ready in 2030. You can see more details at the club’s website, www.wimbledon.com.