Indoor Courts For Rye? Play Continues
Most tennis clubs, not just locally but up and down the country, have long abandoned grass for a variety of all-weather artificial surfaces. Exceptionally Rother Meads Tennis and Games Club in Rye, founded in 1922, maintains eight superb grass courts. But with just three hard courts to supplement them, plus a couple for squash, the club springs into life only between May and September every year. The rest of the year it is moribund.
Which no doubt suits most of its near neighbours in the residential houses strung along Military Road, the avenue heading north out of town flanked by the river Rother. No play means no noise, and no traffic, while the view from the slopes above melds the green of the courts, lying fallow, with the wider meadows of the marsh beyond. Even in season – barring the annual tournament week in August when family car-loads descend upon the environs of the club grounds and park where they shouldn’t – local impact is low-key and decorous. Dress-code for the grass courts is traditional whites only.
The club’s recent purchase of an adjacent field followed by a planning application for permission to erect on it a permanent metal-frame covered structure, more than two thousand square feet in area and ten metres high, to house three new indoor courts is intended to be a game-changer. The aim, as submitted to Rother District Council, is to make the club a year-round “regional centre of excellence….one of the premier racket sports clubs in the South-East”, attracting top tennis coaches and doubling adult and youth participation.
In sporting terms this vision has much to recommend it. At present the budget for maintenance of the club’s limited season grass courts is dependent upon the returns from the annual tournament plus the subscriptions of an ageing and dwindling membership. But abandoning grass would be to lose the club’s heart and soul – it would become just another set of municipal courts. Moreover the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework requires local councils to identify and remedy deficits in sporting facilities in their areas, and Rother District Council’s ten-year Indoor Sports and Leisure Facilities Strategy published in response in August 2015 admitted a severe shortage of indoor halls for a wide range of sporting activities. In fact there are no indoor tennis courts in either Rother or Hastings – the nearest are up to an hour’s drive away in Eastbourne, Hythe (one only) or Tunbridge Wells. The club calculates that within a half-hour radius, encompassing Hastings and Ashford, its intended provision could serve a 250,000 population. The council itself has no funds available for such a development. Here then is the potential for a private charitable venture to do it for them.
There has been some positive reaction to the club’s plans from the local community, both club members and others. But many too have been far from sympathetic. Objectors complain that the intended structure would amount to extension of building beyond the current “development boundary” of the town. Rye Conservation Society describes the design as “an industrial-scale building….. far larger than any agricultural buildings in the vicinity, (having) a serious and detrimental effect on the landscape”; the local CPRE group point to lack of transport infrastructure and long distance visual impact; Playden Parish Council express opposition on grounds of increased hours of use, light and noise pollution, parking and traffic issues; among the many vocal households of Military Road Matthew Hill of Playden House, a substantial residence lying directly opposite, invokes “the rural character of the area” to justify objection to “the loss of outlook that I could reasonably expect to enjoy”; Rupert Spencer of number 52 gets rather more heated: “it would be a blot on the countryside! a carbuncle, an abomination….clearly another site should be found that will not destroy the natural beauty surrounding Rye”.
A visiting neutral observer (me, from Hastings) might wonder whether Mr Spencer has a somewhat idealised local perspective. Natural beauty? The land to the east across the marsh from Military Road is dominated by an array of 26 wind turbines each 115 metres high. It is criss-crossed with pylons and telegraph poles. The rural character is maintained, a mile out of town on the A259, by a complex of rusting corrugated iron barns which now constitute Beryl’s Cafe and Salts Farm Shop and Cafe. The obtrusion into the view from Playden House is undeniable, but very few other neighbours will suffer any significant visual detriment from their residences. As to views in towards Military Road from drivers and footpath walkers on the marsh, it is difficult to understand why a sympathetically screened and coloured sports building tucked below the Playden slope should attract such odium. Of course every encroachment of busy humanity at the edge of town means an incremental loss of rurality. But where else is Britain’s ever-increasing population to be accommodated?
The application for outline permission for the structure received a first public hearing at a meeting of the Rother Council’s planning committee at Bexhill Town Hall on 22 June. Their planning development team had duly weighed the benefits of improving indoor sports facilities in general – “increasing the opportunity of local residents to be pro-active in sport can lead to a greater community of spirit and a healthier lifestyle for everyone” – and of providing indoor tennis courts in particular – which “could provide better opportunities for players to progress locally and not have to travel long distances to further talents.” Nevertheless they recommended refusal, on the grounds that the building would be “a new isolated development….in the open countryside,….unduly prominent and hav(ing) a significant intrusive impact on both the rural character of Military Road and more widely from public footpaths and…in longer views from the east”. They also advised that issues of traffic access, potential effects upon SSSI and conservation sites across the river, and risks of surface water flood had not been adequately addressed in the application.
There was vigorous discussion for and against in the Council chamber. A number of councillors queried whether the club were serious in their stated desire to increase community involvement. Councillor Susan Prochak, while accepting that Rye is a “well-run club”, commented on the lack of apparent school or other community support and doubted that it would “open up” to wider participation. “We need these facilities in Rother but this isn’t the place”, she declared. Councillor Brian Kentfield, chairing the meeting, was prepared to be more accommodating. Given the acknowledged need, and deprived of the ability to provide its own funding to satisfy it, the council could only look to private initiatives. When they were forthcoming, they should not be spurned without strong reason.
Planning team representative Richard Wilson advised that it would not be lawful to grant even outline permission until the club had provided additional material dealing with ecological and surface water issues. The committee could only determine at this stage either to defer the application or, as he had recommended, to refuse it outright.
Councillor Kentfield rejected the argument, made again by Ms Prochak, that the club’s proposals should be thrown out “until they they come back with a proper application”. He pointed out that it would be unfair to demand that an applicant undertake the expense and effort of extensive surveys and consultations on ecological issues if their scheme was to be rejected in any event on grounds of development principle.
So: to defer or refuse? There was a vote. By 4 to 3, with an abstention, a motion to refuse was defeated. The club were effectively given further time to marshall their plans. The objectors will no doubt renew opposition when the application comes back, and there is much still to play for, but in tennis terms it feels like a first set won by the club in the planning contest, albeit on tie-break.
Planning, though, is one thing and finance another. Will Rother Meads actually find the money to build what the planners eventually allow? The costs are likely to prove well beyond the pockets of existing members alone, and none of the shortfall will be met by Rother Council, that’s for sure. Sport England, which channels funds from the National Lottery, seems increasingly unmoved by the idea that these might underpin the provision of facilities for non-elite participators in mainstream sport. Only the Lawn Tennis Association, racking up the proceeds from Wimbledon as you read this, is a likely benefactor – but of how much and under what conditions? The householders of Military Road are not likely to lose their supposed rural tranquillity for some time to come.