Wimbledon, Kingstonian & Bojo the Clown

by | Mar 24, 2016

London (night)mayor Boris Johnson’s decision to “call in” AFC Wimbledon’s Plough Lane planning application this week brought a remarkable, mercifully succinct response from one long-time Kingstonian fan, who we shall call “Les,” for the purposes of this article (and because that’s his name). “Boris tells the squatters to f**k off. ‘AVT IT!!!” Of course, Wimbledon are leaseholders at their current Kingsmeadow Stadium site and so are by definition not “squatters” in it. The mayor’s powers to “call in” planning applications (transferring the responsibility to pass such applications from local planning authorities to City Hall in certain specifically-defined circumstances) are very far from a rejection of, or a “f**k off” to, them. And the cockney vernacular to which Les refers is “’AVE IT!!!” (dropped aitch and exclamation marks optional). So, that’s two factual errors and a typo in nine words. A considerable achievement.

But the more remarkable aspect is the fact that, even after recent developments in the relationship between the two clubs, this sort of view still has traction among Ks fans who, otherwise, are rational and, certainly in Les’s case, intelligent individuals. To quickly recap, for the surely very few who haven’t avidly followed such matters in these and other pages, Kingstonian’s near future is inextricably linked to the progress, or otherwise, of AFC Wimbledon’s proposed move back to Plough Lane, the site of Wimbledon FC’s last home in its “home” borough of Merton.

Planning permission for Wimbledon’s new ground was unanimously granted last December by Merton Council. This started a train of events which will leave Kingstonian in need of a new home themselves, once Wimbledon sell the lease on their current Kingsmeadow ground to Chelsea, who plan to stage their academy and women’s teams’ fixtures there. (Technically, Ks’ Ryman League fixture list doesn’t clash with either Chelsea one, but the Blues aren’t interested – “they don’t do PR” noted one source close to the sale negotiations).

Since Wimbledon agreed to buy the Kingsmeadow lease from Indian businessman Rajesh Khosla’s son Anup in 2003 and entered into a sub-tenancy agreement with Ks, this train of events has been inevitable, the only question being its timing. Thus have Kingstonian’s current directors been kept informed of Wimbledon/Chelsea sale negotiations. Wimbledon have committed to safeguard and part-fund Ks’ immediate future, reportedly much to Chelsea’s bemusement, classy as ever. And Ks’ directors have, privately, been preparing the groundwork (excuse the pun) for their future location.

Merton Council’s December decision kickstarted a timetable for the processes. Boris’s intervention has kicked that timetable into the proverbial long grass. And the length of that grass will be determined more than anything by the result of May’s London mayoral election. There is a logic to Johnson’s decision. While Merton Council unanimously cheer-led the proposals, neighbouring Wandsworth Council and other Wandsworth people were less enamoured. Sadiq Khan, the MP for Wandsworth constituency Tooting and Labour’s mayoral candidate, supported Wimbledon’s plans but said in February 2015: “My priority is to make sure Merton Council continue to work with Wandsworth Council to address local concerns and make sure any development on the site works for everyone,” the sort of “catch-all” pledge you’d expect him to repeat now that he’s a candidate in a closely-contested, fast-approaching election.

Simultaneously, Tory Wandsworth Council leader, Ravi Govindia, expressed support “overall in principle” for “the new stadium and the redevelopment of the site” but added that the council had “a number of serious concerns regarding transport mitigation measures” (Wimbledon will want far more than a 131 bus “service” equivalent) “and the impact on infrastructure.” And he and Tooting’s then-prospective Tory candidate, Dan Watkins, asked Johnson to call in the proposals, Watkins poetically contrasting the “’planning gain’ benefits” for Merton Council with the “‘planning pain’ associated with the development” for Wandsworth residents.

Greyhound and Stock Car racing fans also objected to the loss of “Wimbledon’s iconic and historic Grand Stadium” (the old “Wimbledon Stadium” dog track). And a petition highlighted the “loss to our national sporting heritage” and “the massive blow to thousands of hard-working families who enjoy oval racing in the capital.” This attracted an impressive 12,000 signatures, which suggested that the plans might have been a “massive blow” to some not-so-hard-working “families who enjoy oval racing” too. The objections were not dealt with to Wandsworth’s satisfaction by the time Merton approved the plans. Planning spokesperson Sarah McDermott complained that Merton had not “listened to our advice” to provide “answers to the questions we had raised,” and added that “the mayor now needs to intervene and scrutinise this application much more comprehensively.”

So, it is not a total surprise that Johnson ordered his successor to do so. Especially as in 2015, he considered “the principle of the development” to be “in general accordance with strategic and local planning policy” but that Wimbledon’s proposals did not “comply with the London Plan”, the strategy for “the development of the capital to 2031,” in areas such as “affordable housing, flood risk and transport.” The knock-on effect of the delay to Wimbledon’s plans is a matching delay to Ks’ plans to move to the very south of Kingston borough, as part of a proposed redevelopment of land previously occupied by Chessington Golf Centre. This may offer more time for fans to consider the club’s part of them and more time for the genuine consultation of the many other parties involved with, interested in and affected by them, which is surely no bad thing. And encouragingly thoughtful and wide-ranging debates have ensued on the Ks fans’ forum (“The Ks in Point”), including whether consideration is being given to “’eco‘ features in the new ground.”

The (very) initial plans for the south Chessington site were displayed at a recent home game. They were little more than line-drawn representations of the imagination, complete with matchstick men straight from the LS Lowry school of human representation in art. Yet they gave a surprisingly clear idea of what the new ground might be like. It will be small, for one thing, given the already-known planning restrictions. The initial capacity of 2,500 is nearly ten times our current average home gate but the stadium might need an upward adjustment to fulfil any ambitions higher than the National League South for which Ks are currently striving (4-0 hammering at Enfield Town this week, notwithstanding).

The “masterplan” (no, really) includes this “new home for Kingstonian FC with a 4G pitch to be shared with local schools and community groups” and “five-a-side pitches for Kingstonian FC and local clubs and schools” (the “Chessington Community College,” formerly Fleetwood Secondary School, is literally just across the road). But there are also provisions for “a range of housing to serve local needs, including family housing, homes for key workers and potentially a retirement facility,” a “new 25-metre swimming pool for local schools, residents and community groups,” and “green links and open space” dotted in between the housing “for recreation” and “exercise as well as privacy.”

Many local residents have expressed genuine and understandable infrastructure concerns, allied to traditional Home Counties nimbyism, during the initial public consultation on the plans by Wimbledon-based “independent town planning consultancy” Indigo Planning. There have been a number of major housing developments in the immediate vicinity in recent years, including one on the site of the former Government buildings where I worked in the 1980s and 90s, largely without the required transport improvements (only two trains-an-hour into Chessington South station, which also serves the world-famous Chessington World of Adventures, five minutes down the road.

Meanwhile, concerns about Kingstonian’s presence haven’t focussed on the numbers of non-league saddos and anoraks descending on the area on matchdays (“an average gate of approx. 296, with a max of 442” noted one contributor to a local facebook group, “so not major”). Instead, they have majored on the fact that the actual local football club, Chessington and Hook United of the Combined Counties League, a step below Ks in the non-league pyramid, is also only five minutes down the road. Among Ks fans, though, the Chessington move is thought near-inevitable, given the lack of available, developable land elsewhere in Kingston borough at below eye-watering prices, with more than one Ks fan suggesting that “Chessington needs something like this because it has nothing like this… it’s a sh*thole.”

In these circumstances, I remind myself that my home town is Hook, not Chessington. And in these circumstances, “Les’s” delight at the Johnson-inspired spanner in the works makes as little sense, and has as tenuous a relationship with fact, as ever. A public indication of his thinking might embarrass him. But, you know what? So what. After all, I had assumed he was taking the p**s at first but now I’m not so sure. His and others’ hostility comes from the incorrect belief that Wimbledon bought “Kingstonian’s” ground in 2004. Ks ceased to be the council-owned Kingsmeadow leaseholders when administrators Begbies Traynor were appointed in October 2001 to drag Ks from a financial mess of their/our own making. This was before AFC Wimbledon existed and even before the reasons for their formation existed. Indeed, the former Wimbledon FC were among the first parties interested in buying the Kingsmeadow lease from Begbies. In April 2002, the lease was sold to the Khoslas. So AFC Wimbledon bought the “Khosla’s” ground.

Some Ks fans are able to put this hostility aside in the current circumstances (at the time of typing, the Ks in Point thread Boris Johnson is our friend, he hates Wombles? has received an encouragingly total non-response). Not “Les,” it would appear. And this has skewed his logic to a comic degree. His objection to a Chessington move is that it takes the club outside Kingston town. Yet Kingsmeadow is in the town of Norbiton, as its previous name “Norbiton Sports Ground” rather strongly suggested. And it is in the council ward of Norbiton. Les points to the ground’s postal address as evidence of its true location, the postal address of Jack Goodchild Way, 422a Kingston Road, Norbiton, Kingston-upon-Thames, KT1 3PB.

Presumably until some previously-undiscovered yet somehow affordable football-ground sized land miraculously appears in Kingston town, “sharing at Hampton” is Les’s “best option.” For the information of non-locals, Hampton and Richmond Borough FC is, as the name rather strongly suggests, not in Kingston borough, let alone the town. And it isn’t even in the same county. This, then, appears to comprehensively fail Les’s criteria for Ks future. He also asked if Ks could “afford to move without the KT Dons’ blood money.” This refers to the guts of a million quid which Wimbledon are giving, unsolicited, to assist Ks with moving expenses, in addition to the compensation payment for Wimbledon’s early termination of Ks’ Kingsmeadow sub-lease.

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this, beyond the move being, again by definition, a million quid-plus less affordable without this money made from the shedding of blood of unclear origin. Les’s hatred of Wimbledon even blinds him to the huge significance of this entirely voluntary, unconditional GIFT!!! He assured me drink had not been taken when he made these suggestions on Facebook. I remain to be convinced. Johnson’s intervention will “set” Wimbledon and Kingstonian’s near-future proposals “back”, so it is, literally, a “setback” for both clubs. The delay could be months or years (in its coverage of Johnson’s decision, the South London Press newspaper highlighted the “public planning enquiry and subsequent challenges” which “held up Brighton’s new ground by three years”).

Although a “permanent” delay seems unlikely, given that all objecting parties to Wimbledon’s proposals are highlighting remedies, there is still no cause for celebration for genuine fans of either club, whether or not they are called “Les.” Indeed, Kingstonian retain a very strong vested interest in the timeous solution to the Plough Lane impasse and in Wimbledon’s move back to their home borough. If Wimbledon succeed, Kingstonian have the opportunity to shape their own destiny. If Wimbledon fail, Kingstonian might end up not “’AVING IT”, or any future worthy of the name, at all.

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