Barn Elms plan clears Government planning hurdle

Long-standing proposals to build a centre for sporting excellence on the banks of the River Thames at Barn Elms have moved a step closer after the lifting of a Government embargo which prevented planning permission being formally granted.

The Government Office for London (GoL) has announced that after scrutinising the plans for six months the scheme can now proceed as originally drawn up. The GoL announcement means that planning permission for the multi-million pound scheme has now been finally granted.

Planning approval was actually granted by Richmond Council in March, but on May 4 the then Secretary of State John Prescott ordered Richmond to withhold the formal consent until further notice so that ministers could inspect the plans.

Lord Falconer, the minister now responsible for planning issues, has finally confirmed that he has
no objections to the project and it can now proceed without a public inquiry.

Wandsworth will now attempt to pull together a coalition of sporting groups to finance the scheme, which has seen its construction costs rocket following a 30 month delay in obtaining planning permission.

The planning application for the 100 acre site was submitted jointly by both Richmond and Wandsworth councils on April 12, 1999. Although the land is owned by both authorities, because it lies entirely within Richmond's boundaries, that council is the sole planning authority. Planning law requires these applications to be considered within eight weeks but Richmond's planners did not consider it until March 29, 2001, when it was approved.

This two year wait was then delayed by another six months following the Government's intervention in May. As a result of these delays, construction costs have increased from the £11m originally budgeted for to an estimated £17m today.

Wandsworth Council is now arranging an urgent meeting with UK Athletics in order to gauge their support for the project. The support of UK Athletics is crucial if the scheme is to attract lottery funding. The plans already have the backing of Sport England and a number of other sports' governing bodies, who all wish to see the Barn Elms site developed as a centre for sporting excellence.

The project would see enhanced and improved facilities for a range of sports. The improvements include floodlit tennis courts and hockey pitches, a refurbished boathouse with café, plus upgrades to football, rugby and angling facilities on the Wandsworth part of the site. On Richmond's land, the existing athletics track would be refurbished and a new indoor athletics centre built.

Barn Elms has been used as sports venue for at least 50 years but over that time many of the facilities have become dilapidated and are in urgent need of refurbishment.

Wandsworth's cabinet member for environment and public services Guy Senior said: "I almost can't believe it, but I am delighted to be able to say that these much needed plans for better sporting facilities at Barn Elms have finally been approved.

"Although I am pleased we are now able to move forward, I am extremely concerned over the length of time it has taken the various planning authorities to get their act together. I just hope that their unwillingness or inability to act within a reasonable timescale hasn't jeopardised large sections of the masterplan.

"First we had two years of dithering and time wasting from Richmond before they managed to make a relatively straightforward decision and then we had the Government's last minute intervention, which achieved nothing but waste another six months and push the costs up even higher. The costs of this project has now risen from the £11m it would have cost to build in 1999 to the £17m it will now total. This extra money will obviously have to be found from somewhere.

"Following the Government's decision to pull the plug on Picketts Lock, I imagine there is a large sum of money in the accounts of UK Athletics. Some of this money could now be used at Barn Elms to provide the sort of world class athletics facilities that Londoners deserve.

"We must hope that UK Athletics feels the same way and offers us their support. If they are not willing to do so then we may have to look at other interested parties who want to secure modern purpose-built indoor facilities at a site that has the potential to be one of the jewels in London's sporting crown."