1. This land is a Public Park, for public recreational use, and that is the way it should stay. From 1902, the Recreation Ground, including the area of the redundant Leisure Centre, the Indoor Bowling Club and the Skate Park, has belonged to the residents of Winchester.
  2. The area is designated “open space”, protected by statutory law and by a covenant. The Leisure Centre was a public recreational facility, managed on behalf of residents, and as such it falls within the definition of open space – as do the Skate Park and the Bowling Club. The Council has acknowledged that it holds the land on a statutory trust as a public park and recreation ground for the city, and that it is subject to a restrictive covenant. However, if it is leased to a private, commercial entity such as the University of Southampton, it loses its open space protection.
  3. The City has a shortfall of open space: the land must be kept as a public park or recreation area. Winchester’s Local Plan Part 1 identified a shortfall of land available for open space in the city. The Council cannot allow this open space, where people can play, exercise and enjoy their leisure time, to be handed over to a private developer.
  4. The Council has provided no opportunity at all for public consultation. There has been no public consultation allowed by the Council at any time, and consultation at earlier opportunities, in 2018 and in 2020, was specifically prohibited by the Council. The public must be allowed time to air their views and to explore alternative, sustainable, viable uses for this land.
  5. Green environment in the City. River Park is an urban park providing a play, recreation, sports and leisure environment for the City of Winchester. It is adjacent to Hyde Abbey Garden as well as the Winnall Nature Reserve which is part of the South Downs National Park. Through the park and around the River Park site flows the River Itchen, the navigation canal and its tributaries. This is one of the UK’s unique chalk stream rivers and is a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is in danger from pollution.
  6. Effect on tennis courts, all-weather 3G pitch and cricket pitches of large buildings. The River Park site lies to the south, and is next to, the artificial (and much-used) pitch and the popular tennis courts – the only public tennis courts available in the city. Just beyond them is the main cricket pitch. Any overly large building(s) erected on the River Park site would cast long shadows over the public ground next to them and, if the new building(s) were to be part of a student campus, this would adversely affect the public recreational facilities and their accessibility to Winchester residents.
  7. Flood Risk. The land lies in a zone where the flood risk is high, and it is upstream of the city and the Cathedral. A Council report says a new design that increased the existing building footprint or the impermeable area within the floodplain would not be appropriate in this location; also, replacing the existing leisure centre buildings with open space might have a beneficial effect on the downstream flood risk.
  8. Winchester is a small City. The numbers of students at the University of Winchester are more, when compared to residents, than in Oxford or Cambridge. Can this small city sustain a second major University campus, bearing in mind the numbers of students and the associated accommodation problem?
  9. The Proposals in detail
    – There has been no procurement process for this disposal (called a ‘sale’ in the draft contract): nobody else has been offered the opportunity to bid for it.
    – There is to be no initial payment to the Council for the site, which could lay dormant for five years – following which the University might not decide to go ahead with any development plans – and in the meantime the Council has to pay for the demolition of the Leisure Centre (estimated at £2m) as well as maintenance of the remaining buildings (estimated at £80,000 per annum).
    – The Council proposes to help the University with the potential relocation of the Bowling Club and the popular Skate Park. There is no mention of where they would go, the costs concerned, who would pay for this and how it would be achieved.
    – The University of Southampton, assuming planning consent were to be granted for what is called ‘the campus scheme’, will pay an unquantified amount for the ‘purchase’ of the site. There is no mention of how the value is to be assessed and on what basis.
    Over the 150-year lease period there would only be a ‘peppercorn’ rent.
    – There is no fixed financial benefit to the taxpayer of this sale.
    For the first 35 years of the proposed sale, the land shall be put to principal uses only of or in connection with tertiary education: the public will not have access to the site at all for 35 years following the sale.
    – There is only an ‘aspiration’ and no condition in the draft contract that the University should provide publicly accessible performance space, and no description of the extent or scope of it: there is no definite benefit to the public of this sale.
    – The University will have ‘virtual freehold basis’, no restriction on selling the site on to another, no obligation to repair (including during the initial 5-year period) and ‘absolute discretion over the campus scheme’: the Council will effectively lose control of the site once it is sold.
  10. Conclusion
    The Friends of River Park strenuously object to the Council’s proposals to lease any part of the River Park Leisure Centre site to the University of Southampton, or to any other private, commercial entity. The residents of Winchester should decide what use or uses to which the site may be put, following the de-commissioning of the Leisure Centre building (including, for instance, the possibility of returning it to use as parkland).

Contact Friends of River Park at: friends@riverparkwinchester.org