Udney Park Q & A

Jonathan Dunn is a resident of Hampton Wick. He has lived in the borough since 1993 and is married with two sons. He is the owner of J P Dunn Construction Ltd who were based on Twickenham Green for many years, before moving to their current head office in Thames Ditton. He is also the current Chairman of Thamesians RFC. More recently he has been putting together a bid to return the playing fields at Udney Park to community use.

Why did you oppose the proposals originally put forward by Quantum for this site?

Quite simply – for the long-term benefit of our community. I am not opposed to constructing new buildings for private profit per se. I own a construction business employing three hundred people. We carry out a lot of work in the public sector working on hospital and school projects, and housing regeneration schemes, but my company also work for private developers.  Notwithstanding this, in this instance I felt that building on the playing fields at Udney Park was not in the long-term interest of the community. Playing field space is being continually eroded (both within our borough and nationally) with schools and colleges being forced to build on their own fields to accommodate new buildings. Local sports clubs are being continually squeezed out with reducing areas to play sport. This has a radical impact on our physical and mental health, which I believe needs to be urgently prioritised as we emerge and recover from a global pandemic.

The development proposed put forward by Quantum would have seen much of the playing field space disappear - about 50% of the site was to be built upon for private profit with the building of new flats and a new doctor’s surgery. We are now beyond the arguments surrounding the benefits and downsides of what was being proposed  at the time by Quantum, there was a robust appeal decision, and the site was awarded LGS designation. The concentration now is on creating a sustainable community solution that sees sports played at Udney Park in perpetuity.

Alongside the future benefits this project offers our community, the history and legacy of these fields cannot be ignored. Udney Park has been used for sporting activities since 1922 when it was opened by Viscount Cave as the War Memorial Playing Fields. The aim is to achieve a return to the full use of the playing fields at Udney Park to mark the centenary of this event. Over the years multiple sportsmen and women have used these pitches. Sir Roger Bannister mentions Udney Park fondly in his memoirs and JPR Williams graced the rugby field.

Who owns the site now?

Eventually Quantum came to the conclusion the site could not be developed and decided to sell. This was not before they had spent between £3m and £4m on trying to overturn planning restrictions. The site has an ACV designation under the Localism Act, so once Quantum decided to sell they were obliged to engage with the community bid for a six month moratorium period, during which time they could not sell to anyone else. No meaningful engagement took place within this period. A direct appeal to Lord Fink (the Chair of Quantum), by our local MP Munira Wilson, was effectively ignored.

At the end of this moratorium period in August 2021 Savills commenced a national sales on behalf of Quantum. The sales effort lasted over a year and only one interested party went as far as a Pre App. In August 2022 the site, was due to enter in to a second moratorium period. Days before this moratorium came in to effect, the site was sold at a huge loss to another developer, Leisure Focus, a Chinese-owned company based in the British Virgin Islands. No other potential purchasers saw any ‘hope value’ in the site beyond playing field value.

Over the last ten months Leisure Focus have explored developing the site to incorporate a badminton centre with six playing courts to site alongside the playing fields. Badminton courts require 9m headroom and so the Leisure Focus proposal was to submerge these courts 6m in to the ground. Before going to a Pre App, Leisure Focus concluded that this is not financially viable, nor is there any prospect of this proposal overcoming planning hurdles. Now they too are to sell the site, and we are now entering in to another moratorium period.

In contrast with Quantum, Leisure Focus have maintained dialogue with the Foundation throughout their period of ownership, and the hope now is that a discussion can open up about the purchase of these playing fields.

What is the current state of the site?

There was no investment in the facilities from when the site was purchased by Quantum in 2015. The pavilion needs a massive overhaul to provide modern changing rooms and a vibrant community hub. The fields require a lot of care and attention.

In November 2022 the Foundation carried out a joint inspection of the pavilion with representatives of Leisure Focus. This revealed substantial vandalism, with gaping holes through the roof structure, roof lights and windows. Leisure Focus subsequently erected a temporary hoarding in order to secure the building, but there has now been water ingress over an extended period and this will no doubt have had an impact on the structure of the pavilion.

Leisure Focus have continued the arrangement that existed under Quantum’s ownership and leased out about one third of the site to Teddington Rugby Club to use as a floodlight training facility.

For some time, Covid prevented the playing of much sport or any use of changing rooms, but now that we have emerged from the pandemic and can play sport again, the need to see the playing fields returned to community use comes into a sharper focus.

Will the owners sell?

Leisure Focus have declared their intention to sell. A six-month moratorium now comes in to place. During this period LF can only sell to a community group so I will be submitting a community bid that will hopefully be acceptable to them. The Udney Park Community Fields Foundation was set up as a charity as a vehicle for this purchase. It will be the prerogative of LF to reject any offer, and either retain the site or sell to someone else. That said there is no scope for any residential development given the planning constraints. I would imagine that the only other private interest might come from a professional sports club. In that situation the community bid would struggle to compete, but clearly a professional club would be unable to meet the community objectives, or to satisfy ecological restrictions surrounding sports lights, pitch surfaces and fencing etc. Currently these restrictions are only being added to and the draft Local Plan proposes to designate Udney Park as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC).

Do you have any support for your ideas?

Yes – importantly, I sought the backing of Teddington RFC, who formed part of the CIC supporting Quantum before the appeal, and the Friends of Udney Park who vigorously opposed Quantum. My plan has the support of both.

The two key stakeholders are Thamesians RFC and Hearts of Teddlothian Football Club. Both seek new homes. There are a myriad of other clubs queuing up to use the fields once open.

Beyond these sporting interests I am welcoming maximum engagement with local councillors and residents to ensure that there is as wide as possible consultation around my plans.

With this transparent approach, the potential of what this scheme promises will speak for itself. There is a need for everyone to get behind the plans to ensure our community reaps the long-term benefits.

Does public access to Udney Park form part of the proposal?

Udney Park has never been open park land. That said during the various lockdowns the local community benefited from its use as an open space. I am hoping to retain public access via a children’s’ play area and a 900m jogging track to the perimeter of the fields. The fields themselves would not be an open space and would be operated as formal playing pitches for local amateur clubs and schools rather than for ad hoc use. That said the pitches could be open for public booking, and I would hope that residents would participate and/or support the plethora of local clubs using the fields.

Equally the aim is that pavilion will be a vibrant community hub with loads of space for the use of community groups and charities.

Car parking might be an issue?

As many people as possible will be encouraged to arrive by public transport or cycle. I know that this is the normal for members of Thamesians RFC. Where people arrive by car there should be ample space incorporating the existing car park, and if needs be extending into the space between this and the existing pavilion building (albeit this would require planning approval).

Sports lights are usually a bone of contention?

I totally understand the concern surrounding sports lights – but there is a solution.

During the period of Quantum's ownership there were about ten temporary floodlight units scattered across the fields. These floodlights were environmentally unfriendly in terms of noise and light spillage.

After positive dialogue with the community Teddington Rugby Club have now adopted more modern floodlights creating far less noise and spillage of light.

Any long term scheme that is developed will be sensitive to this issue. I will be taking advice from Sports England to ensure that this is achieved.

Can the site accommodate all the demands for use?

Good point. Grass fields can only accommodate a certain number of hours of use per week irrespective of how well the fields are maintained – but we are developing a highly favourable proposal.

The 4G pitch proposed as part of the Quantum scheme is not something being considered. This had a boundary fence to prevent cross contamination with grassed areas, and also padding to the fence due to the limited runoff to the sides of the pitch. It was an ill-conceived idea, and the playing area was well below the size for competitive fixtures. Beyond providing floodlight training for Teddington RFC, there was no sports legacy for the site.

The Foundation’s proposal is that one of the main playing pitches is proposed to be a hybrid pitch which will not require any fencing and will appear as if it were a 100% grass. This will allow around 30 hours use per week – a multiple of that for a grass pitch. This is an idea in early days of development and the hybrid pitch will not be there on day one! Sports England are providing specialist advice on this and the appropriate floodlighting proposal. Again this would require planning permission so it is not a given that there will be a hybrid pitch.

The rugby and football pitches have been specifically sited to be outside of the cricket square to allow the emphasis to switch as the football and rugby seasons come to an end.

How will this all be paid for?

The Trustees are guaranteeing the monies for the acquisition of the site (at least up to the level of £1million). It is intended that this contribution will be replaced via fund raising, and that the sports clubs and other individuals will come forward with donations to buy the fields. The key is that the operating company that runs the site will not have an obligation to pay back the monies paid by donors for the acquisition. Any operating surplus will be reinvested into the facility.

Who will own the fields and how will they be operated?

The company owning the fields will be the Udney Park Community Fields Foundation. This Foundation will guarantee the fields for perpetuity as sports fields and will also put in place robust arrangements to operate the fields. The Foundation will form an operating committee. The appointees of the operating committee will be chosen based upon the skillset of the individuals and with the aim of diverse representation. This group will be highly energetic and motivated volunteers aiming to ensure that the fields and the pavilion are professionally run. Inclusivity will be a core principle.

How will this benefit your own club – Thamesians RFC?

Thamesians has been a nomadic club since it was formed in 1962 by the old boys of Thames Valley Grammar School (now Waldegrave School). In recent years we have been spread over multiple venues – training has been split between St Marys University, Hampton School and Whitton Fields. Over the last five years we have moved our playing pitch three times as facilities and Marble Hill and Waldegrave School fell out of use. Currently we use the pitch on the main campus at St Marys University. We have been very fortunate to have been able to share the cricket pavilion on Twickenham Green with Twickenham Cricket Club, and have worked with them to improve this facility, however with the growth of the club this venue poses all sorts of challenges due to space restrictions – made more acute by the addition of a successful women’s section in the last couple of years. Udney Park will allow us to bring playing, training, and facilities to a single venue rather than being spread across three locations. This will allow us to develop our mini and junior sections which the current separation of pitches from facilities preclude.

What is your long-term vision for the site?

This is about our vision: a project driven by (and for) the community. The site goes well beyond the interests of a single club. I see this as an opportunity to create an inclusive environment that champions mental and physical wellness. Udney Park is intended to be for multiple sports – rugby, football, cricket, tennis, netball, a mini park run. Sports England are bringing together all the national sporting bodies to ensure that this is properly planned.

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