Countryside campaigners have protested to London Mayor Sadiq Khan over a decision which holds the key to the future of a thriving non-league football club.
The Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) has made an unprecedented intervention over the plan for Greendale, where Dulwich Hamlet hope to build a new stadium.
The club, whose fan base has multiplied 10-fold in the past 15 years as it has risen up the divisions, has drawn up a scheme to move to the playing fields to allow developer Meadow Residential to build 224 flats on its current ground, Champion Hill.
But part of the new 4,000-seater stadium would be on Metropolitan Open Land – which has the same level of protection as Green Belt.
Of the 423 comments to Southwark council, 280 were in favour and 141 against – but in the first three months since June last year, residents who wrote in were almost all in favour – but now the pendulum has swung the other way.
National policy says: “The provision of appropriate facilities for outdoor sport, outdoor recreation” on protected MOL is appropriate.. “as long as it preserves the openness of the MOL”.
CPRE head of green space campaigns, Alice Roberts, wrote to Mayor Khan: “The redevelopment of the stadium should not be at the expense of much-used and valued natural open space, including a well-used community football pitch.
“Open space such as this is a rare commodity in inner London and is protected for good reasons – as you know it is of vital importance in supporting the well-being of the city’s growing population, protecting species on the borough’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and in facing the climate emergency.”
Ms Roberts also added, not in the letter: “We feel very strongly that the Mayor’s assessment is incorrect and sets a worrying precedent whereby any area of a public park or playing fields could have a club sports stadium built on it, so it is effectively no longer primarily there for public use.”
The Greater London Authority’s report in November 2019 says: “The applicant advises in its submission that the relocation of the football pitch and its realignment towards the development site would result in a gain of 980sqm of MOL, mitigating some of the loss of Greendale Playing Fields to the north and east of the pitch.
“The main stand and clubhouse would be outside the MOL, and the provision of fewer and lower floodlighting than the existing provision would make the development less intrusive on the MOL.
“The new artificial pitch would ease the club’s current financial situation as it has low management costs. It can also be used in all weather conditions. Furthermore, in order to enable progression to the National League, DHFC must provide a stadium that can accommodate at least 4,000 spectators, as well two coach parking bays for team use.
“The applicant has advised that the level of provision developed for the club will be sufficient to support its continued growth and enable promotion into a higher division.”
Developer Meadow Residential had applied to build 150 flats on the Champion Hill stadium site.
When Southwark threatened to issue a compulsory purchase to seize the land, Meadow retaliated a year ago with an even bigger scheme with more than 220 apartments.
Meadow, having cut off players’ wages and turfed the club out of Champion Hill, then agreed to its return in December 2018 and to donate Hamlet £50,000 to ease its financial problems, much of which had been caused by the club being evicted. The joint planning application was submitted in June 2019.
Hamlet chairman Ben Clapser said: “Dulwich Hamlet needed to continue into the 2020/2021 season by demonstrating to the football authorities that long-term security of tenure had been achieved.
“Securing the long-term future of a 126-year-old football club is the special circumstances required – it is regularly attended by crowds in excess of 3,000, with large numbers of families and schoolchildren, and has become a hub for local groups, schools and charities.
“It saddens us to see the club, its unique fan base and its community work airbrushed out of any arguments to the contrary.
“The concreted lands within the site will be given over to green space in return. The current derelict pitch will be replaced with a new pitch which will be available to the public and local groups most hours each week and be supplemented with a smaller area available for walk-up community use without booking.
“There are no viable alternatives for the club that do not involve the use of the pitch on MOL. Estimates for renovation now exceed £1m.
“The cost of upgrades required to play in the National League would be double that number and rebuilding on the current site would easily exceed £10m and require the club to leave Southwark for two years, costing another £1m a year in lost revenues. After years of working through multiple options the fans are now pursuing the only feasible stadium option to secure our long term future.
“The club and the stadium owners have engaged positively with the council and other stakeholders to ensure that changes have been made to ensure the application addresses the concerns of all parties wherever possible.”
Meadow Residential did not wish to comment.
Pictured is Dulwich Hamlet’s current Champion Hill ground.