Conservative councillors fail to secure a rethink on the Labour administration’s plans to lease half of Whitewebbs Park to Tottenham Hotspur, reports James Cracknell
Enfield Council’s decision to lease half of Whitewebbs Park to Tottenham Hotspur was “reconfirmed” by a scrutiny committee last night (Thursday 27th) – despite a number of key questions remaining unanswered.
The decision to lease 54% of the park to Spurs – which wants to build a women’s and girls’ football academy on the northern part of the park’s former golf course – was called in to the council’s overview and scrutiny committee by Whitewebbs ward councillor Hannah Dyson.
It gave committee members a chance to ask questions to council leader Nesil Caliskan, as well as officers. These included whether public access would be retained across the park, how the money received from Spurs for the 25-year lease would be spent, and why the original notice publicising the lease was posted on a toilet block shortly before Christmas.
Prior to the meeting, local residents staged a demonstration outside Enfield Civic Centre to vent their anger. The same residents subsequently packed out the public gallery inside the council chamber.
Cllr Dyson began the two-hour meeting by explaining her call-in request. She said: “The scale of the opposition [to the lease] was shown when a crowdfunder reached its target within a few days, and the turnout today is another sign of the scale of opposition and the fact people feel ignored.”
She added: “The park is enjoyed by people from across the borough and is held in trust by the council – it is supposed to maintain it as open parkland.
“When the golf course was open the public were always able to access the full grounds – there was no physical barrier.”
Cllr Dyson also said that plastic-turf pitches would “destroy the land forever” and that there was no need for Spurs to take over other parts of the park to boost biodiversity because “it has recovered naturally on its own” since the golf course closed in March 2021.
While the lease is for 54% of Whitewebbs, at the meeting Cllr Caliskan reiterated that only 18% of the total park area would be “built on” by Spurs for its women’s academy. But Conservative committee members questioned how public access to the rest of the park could be guaranteed when Spurs would control more than half of it.
Michael Rye pointed out that even when the golf course was open “you could wander wherever you liked” but that the Spurs proposal “includes fencing going up”, while James Hockney said the existing Tottenham Hotspur Training Centre adjacent to Whitewebbs “sometimes feels a bit like Fort Knox”.
Cllr Rye later also asked whether Spurs would “control all the entrances to the park” with the exception of Flash Lane in the western half of Whitewebbs. Officers responded that there was an “expectation of public access” but the specific question over who would control the park’s entrances went unanswered.
Cllr Caliskan said that whatever the Premier League club wanted to do with the land would be subject to a future planning application and that the lease wouldn’t be signed without the council’s planning committee voting for it. “I would expect the planning committee to make it very clear, to ensure public access,” the council leader said. “I don’t envisage a situation where the committee would want anything different.”
Regarding the benefits of the lease, Cllr Caliskan added: “What is being proposed is a world-class facility for women – women’s football is the fastest growing sport and this will be an opportunity to claim a UK first, as the first professional women’s training ground.
“On balance we believe residents will benefit […] I can only hope that a women’s training ground will further elevate women’s football in this country.”
Under further questioning, however, doubt was cast over the benefits for local footballers. It was revealed by Sarah Cary, the council’s director of place, that “the Tottenham Hotspur bid was never submitted to us as a place where local people would come and play” but she also insisted that “the proposals talk about an academy not just for professionals but a grassroots academy for women across London and the south-east, to help them become professionals” – and that the facility would be “nationally significant”.
Cllr Rye said in response that women and girls in Enfield who wished to play football could join Enfield Town Ladies FC, which has a number of teams starting from ten years and up.
On the issue of how the £2m income from Spurs would be spent, Cllr Caliskan said: “We have not made any assumptions in our budget position because the lease hasn’t been granted. The income will be used in part to fund grassroots sport activities in the borough.”
Regarding the original consultation on the council’s lease notice last winter, committee members repeatedly criticised the way it was handled. Asked why the notice was not attached to any of the notice boards used to communicate news about Whitewebbs Park, in addition to the toilet block, a council officer suggested it was because “the park was covered in snow”.
Under further questioning, they admitted that only four letters highlighting the statutory consultation had been posted through the doors of local residents.
Scrutiny committee chair Margaret Greer, a Labour councillor, was among those critical of this process, saying the “holiday period” was “not ideal in terms of timing” and adding: “You must accept there is some disquiet about how that was done”.
But Cllr Caliskan hit back to highlight that as well as the toilet, the council had posted the notice at four of its libraries, in the local press, and debated it at a full council meeting in January, while Cary said the 788 responses to the consultation “demonstrated we did have quite a lot of awareness”.
In her opening remarks, Cllr Dyson said that in terms of local press the notice had only been published by the council in Enfield Independent which “is almost fruitless as it is not widely distributed”.
The notice was not published by the council in Enfield Dispatch, which distributes 15,000 free copies around the borough each month.
Cllr Caliskan also claimed that Labour’s 2022 local election victory had given the administration a mandate to proceed with leasing Whitewebbs Park, despite the Conservatives winning a clean-sweep in Whitewebbs ward itself after promising to oppose any lease to Spurs. The Tories last year gained eight seats from Labour in total.
During a discussion over the council’s previous decision to close Whitewebbs Park Golf Course, an argument over how its finances had been calculated ensued – at which point a member of the public repeatedly heckled Cllr Caliskan.
But the council leader responded: “Whether you look at one figure or another figure, it [the golf course] made a loss. We do sometimes subsidise activities in the borough but we decided this golf course would better serve residents as something else.”
Cllr Caliskan said there were many other golf courses for people to use in the borough, but didn’t mention that the council’s draft Local Plan allocated one of them for housing development. There are also plans to turn another borough golf course into a “surfing destination”.
Cllr Dyson concluded the debate with a final plea. She said: “Whitewebbs councillors implore you to rethink this bad deal for Enfield. We believe the council shouldn’t proceed with the lease. This is not about the golf course, it is about the park, and Spurs haven’t fulfilled previous Section 106 [planning] obligations. Why is now different?
“We didn’t speak to a single person in the election campaign who supported it – we were elected as councillors because of the outrage of the loss of the park to Spurs. The council holds the park in trust and is expected to maintain open access.”
The committee subsequently voted by five to three to “reconfirm the council’s decision” as the vote fell along party lines.