Councillors clash over Whitewebbs in bad-tempered civic centre debate

Labour administration refuses to back down on controversial lease of Whitewebbs Park to Spurs, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Enfield Civic Centre and (inset) the former Whitewebbs Park Golf Course
Enfield Civic Centre and (inset) the former Whitewebbs Park Golf Course

Enfield Council’s Labour administration refused to back down on plans to lease out part of Whitewebbs Park to Tottenham Hotspur despite facing a fresh wave of criticism.

Labour councillors rejected calls from the Conservative opposition to ditch the plans in favour of a scheme that would retain full public access to the Green Belt parkland during a full council meeting on Wednesday.

Under current proposals, Spurs would be handed a 25-year lease for the former Whitewebbs Park Golf Course – closed nearly two years ago – where the club intend to build a women’s and girls’ academy on the northern half of the site.

Fresh outrage was sparked after the council published a public notice shortly before Christmas outlining its intention to enter into a lease with Tottenham Hotspur FC (THFC) and inviting the public to comment. Residents and campaigners accused the council of breaking a promise that it would only commence the lease if the club’s proposals won planning permission. Enfield North’s Labour MP Feryal Clark subsequently said she had “lost confidence in the council’s ability to involve local residents in its plans”.

Labour councillors defended the proposals, insisting no lease agreement had been entered into and they had not broken any promises made to the public.

The latest row came during a full council meeting on Wednesday (25th), which took place in front of a packed public gallery following an earlier protest by residents outside Enfield Civic Centre. Deputy mayor Suna Hurman, who was chairing the meeting, repeatedly called for calm as Labour councillors were heckled. With anger boiling over, several residents walked out in protest during the debate.

Describing the park and former golf course as the “jewel in the crown of Enfield”, Whitewebbs ward councillor David Skelton said it was a “legal duty and trust that the council should maintain public access to the park”.

Cllr Skelton claimed the lease notice published before Christmas “on a toilet door in Whitewebbs” had been “presented as a done deal”, with public consultation reduced to a “bare minimum”.

He added: “Frankly, it’s time to throw this deal in the bin and work with local people to develop a sustainable future for Whitewebbs Park. The present proposals represent a land grab of public land, and the process that got us here is littered with broken promises and a scandalous attempt to remove public land from the people and treat public land with contempt.”

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In response, council leader Nesil Caliskan insisted the authority had not reneged on its promise. She said: “We have not, and will not sign a lease until planning permission has been granted. If it is granted after a public consultation, it is at that point we would sign a lease.”

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Cllr Caliskan added that the notice published before Christmas was “in line with the law and the process that is necessary”. The leader said legal counsel had been sought “at every stage of the decision relating to Whitewebbs […] and it is my view that we have followed the process appropriately, correctly and legally.”

Cllr Caliskan claimed the golf course had been losing money, and it was “not responsible for taxpayers’ money to be used to subsidise something when we have other critical services”.

Fellow Labour councillor Bektas Ozer sparked laughter and shouts from the public gallery when he said the issue was “nothing to do with the Green Belt” and was “all to do with the bourgeoisie being taken away from the hobbies that they have”. He added: “It does not make sense to have a Green Belt made up of golf courses. The Green Belt should be biodiverse.”

Tory councillor Joanne Laban hit back at the comments, saying Labour wanted “the Premier League, the elite football academy at Whitewebbs, and it is the Conservatives who want that park to have 100% public access.” She added: “To tell people you are entering a lease at Christmas and ask people their views is incompetent at best, underhand at worst.”

Several Labour councillors talked up the potential financial benefits of the plans, despite claims from the Conservatives that the £2million total value of the lease represented a bad deal for the borough.

Nia Stevens, Labour member for Highfield, said that the council would use income from the lease to invest £100,000 a year into grassroots sport for young people, which was “quite clearly much better value for Enfield residents” than the “loss-making” course. She added: “As a special bonus, Enfield gets to play a proud role in supporting the development of women’s elite football in North London.”

Labour’s Rick Jewell claimed that in 2007 the then-Conservative council administration planned to redevelop the north end of the park but abandoned it because “they did not get the financial interest they wanted”. He added: “Be under no illusion – if that money had been right, we would have houses up there.”

But Conservatives continued to attack the council’s plans and call for a re-think. Andrew Thorp, who reprersents Ridgeway, said THFC had “zero experience” in managing parks and woodlands which he said made up a “large portion” of the plan. He called for the future of the park to be “left to the people that love it most – the residents in the public gallery here”.

Tory leader Alessandro Georgiou insisted the council had backtracked on its promise over the lease and used the Christmas period to proceed with a “sham consultation”. He added: “If you do not accept the [opposition] recommendations, you will have proven you hate our green environment, you detest the residents and sell out to big businesses who took you for a ride.”

In her final response to the opposition recommendations, Cllr Caliskan repeated that the council had not broken its promise over the lease, said Whitewebbs would “still be publicly accessible” and argued the Tories had failed to come up with an alternative plan for the park.

When the council leader’s response was put to a vote, all of the Conservatives voted against. All of the Labour members voted in favour apart from the deputy mayor, who was chairing the meeting and abstained.

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