WIMBLEDON COMES BACK FROM THE BRINK
How campaigners have managed to open people’s eyes to the stadium’s future. By Matt James
There was a huge collective sigh of relief last week when the news came through that the planning application to flatten Wimbledon Stadium has been called in by the mayor Boris Johnson.
The future of short oval racing at the south west London venue – one of the rare inner city tracks left operating in the country – is in serious jeopardy. Even with this latest move, the outlook is still unclear but this decision to create a significant extra layer of red tape is a sign that racing fans’ objections are being taken very seriously. There is still a chance, albeit a slim one, that the Grand Old Lady of short oval racing will remain as she is.
There was a packed out crowd for what was billed as the final meeting at Plough Lane on Sunday, March 20, and, as the fans filed out of the turnstiles at the end of the night, there was a genuine feeling that the curtain had come down on a history that extends back to 1962 – to a time before Boris Johnson was born...
Back in December last season, developer Galliard Homes was granted permission to build 602 dwellings on site, and also a new 11,000 all-seater football stadium for AFC Wimbledon and other business premises. It seemed as if any requirements from the short oval or greyhound racing worlds, which both have strong histories at the venue, were brushed to one side as the planning application was pushed through. This led to campaigners galvanising themselves to make their voices heard.
Even the fact the planning application has been called in was shrouded in confusion for the campaigners who have been battling so hard to highlight the plight of the stadium.
The initial contact to the Save our Stadium group came from a local journalist after the crucial meeting of London’s planning top brass at City Hall on March 22. The reporter got his wires crossed and told the group he had bad news: the mayor had approved the application.
It wasn’t until a while later that the journalist phoned the campaigners back, and admitted that he had made a mistake. The application had been called in after all and there would be a review.
By Mayor Johnson calling in the application, it now means that the planners at City Hall will review the entire scheme and will hear representations from interested parties – including the short oval racing fans – before reassessing the permissions granted.
That will take several months. The outcome probably won’t be known until next year and, while it could be the case that nothing changes at all, it means that racing will be able to continue at the venue later this year when the season restarts.
And, if the Mayor and his officials listen to the 12,500 people who have signed the petition to keep the stadium alive, then there could be good news for the longer term future.
Mayor Johnson’s future at the helm of the city is, of course, not for the longer term though. He was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012, but decided not to stand for a third term in 2016 after being elected as the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 2015. That means there will be a new mayor, but because the application has already been called in, the change in leadership of London will have no effect on the outcome of the process.
The meetings at the track are operated by Deane Wood’s Spedeworth organisation, but it is merely a tenant on the site and has no director control over what happens in the future. And, as it is a tenant, it can’t shout too loudly against the plans for fear of upsetting the landlords should the decision be reversed in the future. It has a very thin line to tread and, in many ways, has its hands tied over this entire issue. It has had to stand by and let others lead the fight, which it now appears they have done very successfully.
Campaigner Michael Burnage said: “This decision, whilst not a victory by any means, does at least give us a chance of returning to Wimbledon Stadium in October for the new [short oval] season.
“The very real fear was that the Mayor would simply approve the application for a football stadium and houses almost automatically.
“From the start, our strategy was to do whatever it took to make sure that our voice was heard in the process, which it hadn’t been up to this point for many reasons. Over the course of the past four months, we have sought to challenge the perceptions made by others, and ensure that when it came to the consideration, the Mayor would have to look at every aspect of the application before him.”
Peter Gray, who has also been at the forefront of the Save our Stadium campaign, added: “It is great to say to the many thousands who signed the petition, our voice has now finally been heard. It is no longer the beginning of the end, but simply the end of the beginning. Our main task now is to provide as much help and support as we can, in the continuing fight to save Wimbledon Stadium.”
The battle has been won, but the war isn’t over. Campaigners deserve huge credit for forcing this significant move. If the momentum can be maintained, then racing could still stand a chance of remaining at the iconic venue. ■
Organiser: BARC/ LHRC When: March 27/28 Where: Lydden Hill, Kent Starters: 125
The term rising star is banded about easily in motorsport. In the case of Dan Rooke, that statement is fact.
Rooke, 18, moved to rallycross from autocross at the end of 2014 and contested his first full British Rallycross campaign last season. In that first year, he won the Supernational title in his Citroen AX.
At the anniversary event of his debut win, Rooke won again, but this time in the headline MSA British Rallycross Championship Supercar category.
Following an impressive debut in the LD Motorsports Citroen DS 3 at the opening round at Croft early in March where he was second to Kevin Procter, Rooke claimed victory at the series’ second round to lead the points table.
Procter had started on pole for the final by virtue of winning the first semi-final, with the victor of the second semi, Ollie O’donovan, starting in the middle of the front row and Rooke on the outside. As the lights went green, Ford Focus driver O’donovan made the best start to lead into Chessons Drift ahead of Procter and back-row starter James Grint, who made a brilliant launch to drift around the outside of Procter to run second.
In the first corner, Procter touched the rear of O’donovan’s car, damaging his Ford Fiesta’s intercooler. Grint ran second to O’donovan on lap one, but spun at the infamous Lydden Hill chicane.
Rooke took his joker lap early, passed Andy Grant soon after and ran in second. O’donovan took his joker on lap three and retook the lead, ahead of Rooke, only to suffer from turbo failure on lap four. Rooke claimed the lead and, as O’donovan dropped back, Mark Flaherty climbed to second. Grint recovered to finish third. Belgian visitor Johnny Verkuringen crossed the line fourth in his Subaru Impreza, with O’donovan fifth and Procter classified sixth. Steve Hill and Grant both suffered technical issues during the race.
“After the first round we thought another podium could be possible here, but I never expected to win,” said Devon-based Rooke afterwards. “Once I got passed Ollie I tried to keep it tidy and it just came together.”
Former Supernational champion Stuart Emery missed the first round of the season but returned for round two at Lydden with a revised transmission in his Peugeot 206.
He fought back from problems earlier in the event to pass Mike Howlin in the early stages of the final to win at his home circuit ahead of Tony Lynch.
The Junior Rallycross competitors ran in two events at Lydden and Sam Jones took victory twice. Nathan Heathcote claimed a maiden win in the Swift Sports, while Chrissy Palmer beat Janis Baumanis in the RX150 final. Keifer Hudson won the BMW Mini final.
Hot Rod racer Jason Kew won the Best in Britain last season
Fans packed out the March 20 meeting
Wimbledon always pulls racers
and big crowds
Drivers behind the campaign to
save Plough Lane
Competitors enjoy the friendly
Dan Rooke took a maiden win in British Supercars