Deal to boost tennis in Sheffield courts controversy

Tennis courts in Graves Park
Tennis courts in Graves Park
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It has been hailed as a deal which will secure the future of public tennis courts in Sheffield, but not everyone is convinced.

Sheffield Council has moved to reassure people the city's tennis courts are in safe hands after concerns were raised about plans to lease them to a new operator.

The council has teamed up with the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) to secure a deal it says is the biggest of its kind in the country and will help restore dilapidated courts and make the sport available to all.

Under the agreement, courts at seven parks and two school sites would be run by Parks Tennis CIC (Community Interest Company), which would provide free coaching sessions and use the income from bookings to improve and maintain courts.

The courts would still be owned by the council but would be leased for five years to the new operator, set up to act in the community's interests.

The council says the arrangement has been welcomed by friends groups but those at two of the parks concerned have expressed their doubts, with one describing the deal as 'privatisation by the back door'.

The Friends of Graves Park, where refurbishment work on courts began at the end of last year, claimed there was 'no economic logic' in setting up a private company to manage the courts rather than doing so itself.

"This is privatisation by the back door and there is no economic logic to it, unless there is an ulterior motive," added the group, which has previously criticised the council over the sale of Cobnar Cottage on the edge of the park.

Mildred Morgan, chair of the Friends of Concord Park & Woolley Wood, said courts there had been built using a grant obtained by the group and should stay free to use,

There is currently no charge to book those courts, unlike at other parks, but she was not convinced this would remain the case under the new deal.

"We're quite cynical because we have experience dating back a good number of years where the council says it's going to do something and then that changes and becomes not such a good idea," she said.

The deal has been welcomed by other groups.

Andy Chaplin, treasurer of Friends of Hillsborough Park, said: "We're not that worried. It's a five-year lease to an organisation running it for the community and there are guarantees they can only use the land for tennis."

He added that the courts - which now cost £4 an hour to use, with a limited number of free sessions available - had been free to use for many years but were in such a poor state then that few people played on them.

Paul Campbell, chair of Sheffield Green Spaces Forum and Friends of High Hazels Park, said he welcomed improvements to tennis courts and the coaching sessions on offer.

But he said communication about the details of the scheme had been 'poor', and a notice about the 'disposal' of the courts initially caused some alarm, before it was explained this is a legal term.

Paul Billington, director of culture, parks and leisure at Sheffield Council, said: "With Parks Tennis and the LTA, we have a real opportunity to run a major new low-cost and accessible programme, aimed at local people of all ages and ability.

"Free coaching is available for children and adults alike, people can book courts that are guaranteed to be available when they want to play, and the facilities remain clean, tidy and well-maintained.

"This is a great step forward for our parks and tennis – and of course, all the courts remain firmly in the ownership of the council."

The LTA said it began working with the council in 2014 to halt what it described as the 'terminal decline' of parks tennis in the city following years of underinvestment.

It said £251,000 had already been spent refurbishing 22 tennis courts under the partnership, and an application has been submitted to resurface two courts at Bingham Park.

An 18-month pilot programme in the city, it added, had seen over 18,000 court bookings by more than 2,000 different customers.

The courts which would be managed by Parks Tennis are at Bingham, Concord, Graves, Hillsborough, Millhouses, High Hazels and Weston parks, and at Forge Valley and Westfield schools.