London’s housing crisis is putting increased pressure on local councils to allow property developers to build on green spaces.
Take the proposed developments at Udney Park in Teddington, for example.
In 2015, the land was sold by Imperial College London to Quantum Group, a “retirement living specialist”, who plan to build 107 apartments on the Udney Park playing fields, as well as a GP surgery and underground carpark.
If these plans were to go ahead, space available for community sport would be reduced by around 50%, but Quantum has secured support from some local sports clubs including Teddington Athletic FC, by offering to replace one of the pitches with a 3G pitch with artificial grass.
However, the plans continue to divide local residents.
Councillor Martin Elengorn, Liberal Democrat Councillor for Teddington, said: “I was surprised and disappointed that Quantum had taken the unusual step of ignoring the advice given to them by Richmond’s planners that, in the absence of very special circumstances, substantial development would breach open space and playing fields planning policies.”
Mark Jopling, member of the ‘Friends of Udney Park’ campaign, added: “We were devastated to learn in September 2015 that Udney Park had been bought by a private-equity speculator despite all of the Sporting, Planning, Health and Environmental Government Policy protection generally for playing fields and the protective designations for Udney Park in particular.
“Quantum ignored two planning briefs from the Council and the statutory Richmond Borough Playing Pitch Strategy based on Sport England methodology.
“We subsequently learned through a Freedom of Information request (FOI) to Imperial that Quantum bid after the Imperial tender process closed and that the only bids were from 3 local groups, all committed to 100% community use, were outbid.
“These circumstances made a lot of people very angry from across the Borough, the support that flowed was a constructive reaction to a threat to much needed and much loved playing fields.”
Despite the sale to Quantum only being announced in 2015, the campaign to save Udney Park began as soon as Imperial College announced they had no need for it in 2014.
Friends of Udney Park has subsequently mobilised strong local opposition across social media.
Jopling said: “We are up against a smart and savvy developer with deep pockets and an abnormally high profit if they win so we have to be very professional and committed and we are. Thanks to many generous donations we can afford to employ a leading Planning Consultant”
A key area of consternation amongst the locals is the way that support was gained by Quantum for their campaign as many believe they were divisive in their methods.
The Richmond and Twickenham Times reported in April that London Scottish Rugby Club withdrew their support for the development over concerns about the nature of the campaign.
Jopling added: “Quantum have gained the majority of the support for their application from patients of a local GP surgery.
“That surgery wants to re-locate and when they surveyed patients offering two options, North Lane or Udney Park the preference was almost 4:1 against Udney Park.
“Allowing the developer to campaign for support letters for the Planning Application inside the GP surgery waiting room for several days also upset many local residents.”
Councillor Elengorn concedes that this campaign has effective.
He said: “it was somewhat divisive, because many people were persuaded to write in favour, mainly because a new doctor’s surgery was part of the application.”
The Udney Park dispute is an all too common feature of London parklife these days as green spaces are lost to developers while politicians are under pressure to tackle the housing shortage
A similar story can be found at Molesey Football Club. Plans were submitted by the club for the development of 50 new apartments to be built on the road next to the Herds Renault Stadium in West Molesey.
The application also promised that a new clubhouse, day nursery and changing room facilities would be built as part of the development.
And these plans, like Quantum’s have divided public opinion. Many residents are concerned about overpopulation, the environment and the strain placed on local schools and infrastructure, while many others are understandably demanding access to affordable and social housing.
Jopling address another major concern about the loss of green space: “Much research confirms that physical inactivity is a major cause of poor health outcomes and premature mortality in the UK. We need kids to get active through sport and then stay involved through adulthood in volunteer-led community sport.
“Thankfully the barriers to developers building on green space in Local Plans, the London Plan, the National Planning Policy are getting higher. National Planning Policy states in paragraph 74 that ‘playing fields should not be built on’.
“Udney Park is a nationally significant issue, there is real concern about repeatability if Quantum succeed in Teddington. If Quantum get to build on a site with as much protection and history as Udney Park then no grass pitch is safe from the concrete mixer and the wealthy speculator.
“Only recently Martin Glenn, Chairman of the FA, commented on the need to protect community football pitches from predatory developers, citing the massive battle over Dulwich Hamlet FC.
The Strategic Housing Assessment for London proves future demand for housing can be met without compromising green infrastructure. We have enough brown-fields – look at the demise of retail stores for example.
“We used to convert factories, now the number of shops is falling dramatically and irreversibly.
“Mayor Khan has committed to increasing green space in London, making it the world’s first ‘National Park City’. All this Policy should mean the days of developers making around 500% profit simply by getting planning permission on green space are over.
“Udney Park must not become an ugly precedent for over-turning all of this policy.”
Like countless other situations similar to Udney Park, the local people are always the ones to lose out from development like this and the loss of green space, a sentiment that Jopling wholeheartedly agrees with.
He said: “The local community would lose out due to a massively intrusive development, completely out of scale with the local street scene and with wholly inadequate parking.
“There are already two large local developments of luxury apartments close to Teddington High Street, the Richmond Local Plan showed this development is not required.
“Local sporting capacity is a significant concern, many local clubs have waiting lists and inadequate space for matches and training. Children will play less sport if Udney Park is not maintained 100% for the community.
“There are also major ecological and environmental concerns about the loss of green space, during construction and permanently thereafter.
“Quantum’s ‘Ecological Report’ which is part of their planning application, has been demolished by experts from wildlife charities. There are 8 species of bat on the site for example.
“Quantum also spent a large sum avoiding the Councils demand for an ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ – an act which showed their true colours towards our community.”
“Sport England, a statutory consultee, have objected on the grounds of loss of playing fields and playing fields are largely used by younger people.”
So what is the current situation? What does the future hold for Udney Park?
Jopling filled me in: “The planning application for 107 luxury flats is due to be heard very soon, probably July.
“Quantum are ‘cunning entrepreneurs’ – they help to fund a Community Interest Company (CIC) that shares directors with two local sports clubs which horrified many other local clubs.
“A senior councillor said ‘don’t believe for one second that Quantum partnering with local organisations is anything other than camouflage for their grubby deal’.
“This application will reduce sports space by around 50% and end cricket altogether, justified at one of the ‘consultations’ with the comment that ‘cricket is a dying sport’.
“We have been heartened by the massive ‘Object’ reaction to Quantum’s application from the community.
“Every relevant NGO has objected, all 3 political parties stood on a ‘zero development’ message at the recent Local Election and we have key local sporting figures registering objections to the application such as Sir Mo Farah, Paul Sinton-Hewitt (Parkrun founder), Bill Sweeney (CEO Team GB/BOA) and JPR Williams (most famous rugby alumni from St. Mary’s Hospital RFC).”
The Udney Park dispute is likely to drag on for many more months and could end up in the courts, but whatever the outcome it highlights that London’s green spaces are under greater threat than ever before. London needs to tackle its housing crisis, but whether this can be achieved without losing more parks and green space is open to question. As Councillor Elengorn said: “open space once lost is lost forever”.
Featured photo © Friends of Udney Park