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18 March 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:50am

The decline of Britain’s community sports pitches – and why it’s an own goal

When a free football pitch disappears, locals lose so much more than just a place to kick a ball around.

By Ruby Lott-Lavigna

Greendale fields are a rare find in London. The large space in the southeast corner of the city has been available for recreational use for over a century, home to hedgehogs, bats and my football team: Lambeth Allstars.

On an average summer’s day, you might spot locals kids playing, people walking dogs, or barbecue smoke rising against a brilliant orange sky from the wild fields. It also happens to house another hallowed space in the city – a free, 6,228 square foot astroturf pitch where, for the last three years, I’ve learned to play 11-a-side football.

For around 15 years or so, the pitch (owned by Southwark Council) has been free to use, technically leased out to the neighbouring football club Dulwich Hamlet FC – although it no longer maintains it – rendering it essentially public.

While there’s no denying it’s run-down –  when I first joined we had two floodlights, now we have one – it’s a valuable resource when community sports pitches are disappearing across the UK. By last summer, local government cuts since 2010 had forced the sale of 710 local football pitches in Britain, according to data obtained by the GMB union under the Freedom of Information Act in June 2019. Greendale astroturf – as scruffy as it is – was where I developed a passion and a community that, hopefully, I will have for the rest of my life.

However, the astroturf is facing extinction after becoming a pawn in a battle between Dulwich Hamlet FC and owners of their stadium, private property firm Meadow Residential, which has owned the club’s ground since 2014. In 2018, Dulwich Hamlet was kicked out of its stadium for eight months, when Meadow refused to extend the team’s lease, hoping to turn the land into more profitable flats. Meadow claimed the club was £120,000 behind in rent and had breached the terms of its licence to use the ground.

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In order to solve the dispute and get the club back in, Southwark Council agreed not to pursue a compulsory purchase order (which would mean forcibly buying up the land itself) and granted a lease to the neighbouring astroturf at Greendale.

The company followed this up with a plan to build 224 new flats on the current ground and a new stadium for the club on the neighbouring astroturf area. This proposal, including 40 per cent affordable housing, was received by the Council in June 2019 and is currently going through planning permission (with the status “under consideration/assessment”).

To anyone who has watched local councils rely on the private sector for help in the face of major funding cuts, this proposal is worrying. As private property owners take over the city, we find the places we knew so well – parks, libraries, squares – transformed into sterilised, exclusionary, and over-surveillanced pseudo-public spaces. This is the fear with Greendale – that a once open and diverse space will become privately-owned (with a lease of over 100 years) and far less accessible.

Not only will the plan see a free pitch suddenly lost in the boundary of much larger stadium, but locals fear it sets a precedent for future private developments in the area.

This is because the stadium could be built over “Metropolitan Open Land” (MOL), which has the same protected legal status within a city as the greenbelt does around the edge. Loss of free or cheap sports space and open land in cities is legally protected for good reason – access to MOL can “help human health, biodiversity and quality of life”, according to Mayor of London policy.

While officers of the Greater London Authority argue that the proposal fits the “Very Special Circumstances” required to develop on this land, many locals disagree, also concerned to see that the plan’s proposed replacement of the astroturf – a “kickabout space” – is far smaller than the original. Southwark Council was unable to confirm whether this space would be free to use or not.

Johnson Situ, cabinet member for growth, development and planning, told me over email: “The existing astroturf football pitch at Greendale is currently leased to Dulwich Hamlet FC and the council would like to see it restored for community and sporting use.

“The planning application, which is currently live, looks at whether the provision of an artificial grass pitch, surrounded by a small amount of terracing and a fence, is consistent with the area being designated as Metropolitan Open Land.

“As the application is live, we can’t comment further, but I can assure residents that all matters will be brought to the attention of the planning committee so an informed decision can be made.”

Roger Sewell – my coach – has used the astroturf for over 21 years, maintaining booking when it was still up-kept by Dulwich Hamlet (when almost 150 people would use it every night), as well as coaching a men’s team, a children’s team and, later, my women’s team.

“[If the plans went through], well, it wouldn’t help,” he tells me over the phone. “We’re not going to benefit from it at all. If [the astroturf] disappeared full stop, it would be bad. Where are the kids going to go?”

Indeed, loss of sports space also has real, physical consequences for those around it. With a rising obesity crisis in the UK that detrimentally affects children from poorer backgrounds, closure of the pitch could have serious health implications. Not to mention that access to sports space can vastly improve mental health.

This development is likely to hit the least affluent most – those who can’t spare an extra few quid a week to rent a football pitch, if it turns out not be free. A review of green spaces by Public Health England stated how access to this kind of space can reduce “health inequality”, considering “the most affluent 20 per cent of wards in England have five times the amount of green space than the most deprived 10 percent of wards”.

“People use Greendale fields as a place to escape to,” Jasia Warren, chairperson of Friends of Dog Kennel Wood, the campaign group opposing the plan, tells me over the phone. “Locally, we really will miss having this large, open, recreational area at our free disposal.”

For nine years, in her chairing role, Warren has fought against various development plans. “We met with [Meadow Residential] quite early on and had a talk about what their motivations were,” Warren tells me. “As time has gone on, it’s become clear what their motivation was, which was to try and make some money back on the football stadium land.”

Meadow Residential has been contacted but has not responded to my questions about the development.

While the story of Greendale may seem like a black-and-white tale of a private property developer threatening to build over a much-loved community asset in pursuit for profit, this narrative has become tangled up in the fate of much-loved Dulwich Hamlet FC.

In the past, the relationship between the owners and club has been strained (in the midst of the dispute, Meadow even trademarked the club’s name), but this new plan has changed that. Instead of blame falling at the feet of Meadow, or Southwark Council, it’s landed on critics of the proposal deemed to be standing in the way of the club. As the team inches closer to relegation, fans are desperate to do whatever it takes.

“I’d put my life on the line to save this football club,” Tom Cullen, communications director of Dulwich Hamlet and a majority shareholder tells me. “We would argue that safeguarding the future of a historic and important football club that serves the needs of many is worth [building over Metropolitan Open Land].”

While the club has its own desires, Cullen recognises that the team is beholden to the wishes of Meadow Residential, and is a business in need of money (Cullen’s commitment to the club means he is personally in tens of thousands of pounds of debt).

“This is the cold hard reality of it,” says Cullen. “The football club does not own the land that it sits on. The football club has always had to take into account the interest of the people who own the land on which it sits.”

The potential loss of Greendale astro is a tale familiar to London, but it’s not just the capital suffering such losses. The worst-hit region is the northwest of England, which has lost 164 pitches since 2010, while London has lost 54, according to the most recent available figures. As the tide of private ownership sweeps the country while councils struggle for money, sports pitches are easy to lose.

Over the years, different developers have tried to secure the land and failed, but campaigners are concerned. Even if Southwark Council blocks the development, London Mayor Sadiq Khan – who has often been spotted in Dulwich Hamlet’s pink and blue – is able to overrule the decision. For a club that has historically struggled against market forces, this proposal could be an easy fix. But at what cost? 

“All we can do is make as much noise as we can,” Warren tells me, when I ask if she’s feeling hopeful. “I would hate for this development to go ahead and for there to have been no fight.”

Ruby Lott-Lavigna is a staff writer at Vice UK.

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