Breaking: Plan for Olympic climbing wall at Nene Park approved


A cross section of the plan

Nene Park Trust had hoped to gain approval from Peterborough City Council's Planning & Environmental Protection Committee for a new Lakeside Activity Centre.

The controversial plan at Gunwade Lake would see an estimated additional 100,000 visitors per year and would generate as much as £2 million for the local economy each year. 

Originally submitted two years ago, it had attracted a raft of objections from local residents concerned about the height of the 34-metre tower, a loss of green space, and an increase in traffic around the area.

And in a virtual meeting that stretched to more than three-and-a-half hours, members voted by ten votes to one to approve the plans.

Cllr Christian Hogg said he came into the meeting open-minded, but had been swayed in favour because the trust did a fantastic job and the plan was 'adding the jewel to the top of the crown of Peterborough', adding that it was being built on a 40-year-old car park prone to flooding. 

Cllr Andy Coles said he was pleased with the provisions for disability access, and still had concerns over parking but believed the Trust would do everything it could to mitigate these, while Cllr Dennis Jones said that he was guided by the planning officers' report for what was a "self-contained" plan.

Lone objector Cllr Amjad Iqbal said it was the most difficult hearing he had been to but voted against the plans, taking note of concerns about traffic and location, and the higher number of objectors than supporters.

The plan would see 225 spaces provided to the south - an overall increase of 85 more spaces - plus 10 spaces for disabled parking. They would be able to use one of the country’s largest Clip ‘n Climb arenas, suitable for all ages; a natural-themed indoor toddler play area and an additional café and private hire spaces. The applicants also said there would be a net gain in biodiversity.

Planning officers had recommended the plan for approval, and Head of Development and Construction Nick Harding said that the drawbacks of the plan were outweighed by benefits that it would bring. A 'sequential test' for the location and flood risk, showed that from several suggested sites this was the best option available.

He added that officers had consulted with historic England and PCC's own archaeologist, both of whom were satisfied that the plan could be approved by using conditions respectful to the site.

Principal engineer Nick Greaves added that a number of conditions had been imposed on what events could be held, to address some of the parking concerns.

Deputy leader Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald said that most people he had spoken to had been positive about the plans, and a petition against them backed by celebrity Chris Packham 'wasn't worth the paper it was written on.' He said there was no justifiable reason to reject the plan.

Nene Park Trust chair designate Jackie Bland said that she believed the plan was very exciting and that it would support healthy lifestyles in the city, as a benefit both mentally and physically, and the trust's research showed that the plan would be inclusive for all ages.

She said that the park lacked indoor facilities, and schools, families and those wanting to socialise would be attracted to the centre. In 2017, when the idea was first mooted there were an estimated 1 million visits to climbing walls in the UK, increasing since, and it will be an Olympic sport for the first time this year.

She added that climbing is inclusive, and "allows people to reach beyond what they thought their limits were."

Nene Park Trust head of development Andrew MacDermott said the plan would bring people together, especially those young adults who say there is nothing there for them, and the viability of the plan had been heavily scrutinised by trustees. 

He also refuted concerns that the term 'hub', which had been used to describe the plan, suggested it might be the starting point for expansion.

He added that work was ongoing to improve the way people come to the park without their car, which is well connected, and they are encouraging people to cycle and walk to Nene Park.

Orton Waterville resident and businessman Iain Forsythe said Nene Park had always been sympathetic to the people of Peterborough living nearby while trying to remain sustainable. He acknowledged that while the plan was divisive, it may bring people into Nene Park at times of the year when it was normally quiet, and was a keen supporter.

He emphasised, as a director of Opportunity Peterborough, that the wall could be a great selling point for the city, having been to a 'vibrant' and 'amazing' comparable climbing wall in Edinburgh at the start of last year.

"If our growth is to be sustained, with the uni and two new schools being built this week, the apartments in the centre, how do we attract and retain the quality of worker and teaching staff for what we want Peterborough to be?"

And CEO of Cambridge Meridien Academies Trust Mark Woods, representing Nene Park Academy and West Town, said that the wall could would make an "excellent addition to the provision for young people" and "extend the boundaries of learning."

In opposition, Orton Waterville member Cllr Nicola Day said it had "frightened" local residents who wanted FM preserved as a haven for the city forever, and the height of the wall could not be simply ignored - adding that it is "the right building in the wrong place."

In addition, residents had told her of their fears of even more cars parking on roads and laybys near the entrance to Nene Park, and more traffic on the roads for a city that had green aspirations. She added that an 'overwhelming majority' of the letters she had received from local residents were against the plan.

Prospective PCC councillor Michael Samways described the plan as a "windowless tower", while Simon Martin said that the council needed to look deeper at some of the conflicts of interest contained within the plan from some of those within Nene Park Trust, and was also very sceptical of numbers of projected visitors. 

He said: "Such a substantial structure will have a devastating impact on the only natural green space in the city. The peace will be shattered. It will be irreversible, and this risk could all be for nothing if, as I suspect, it turns out to be unviable business."

Civic Society chairman David Turnock said the society had found it difficult to decide on whether to back or oppose the plan, but in the end its decision came down to the location - and compared it to other sports clubs such as the ice rink and rugby clubs in the city that are just off major roads, and "not at the end of a very long cul-de-sac," referring to Ham Lane.

He added that, while it could put Peterborough on the map, the society said it was "not compatible with the existing ambience of the park" in its proposed spot, and had recommended rejection. 

Local resident Lawrence Dobney, a keen user of the park, thanked the Trust for its work but was concerned about the effect on the unspoilt views that the "eyesore" tower would bring and a potential of 2,000 more visitors a week.

Andrea Lindley, who had once gained 1100 names in two weeks on a petition against the plan, reminded the committee that it was an urban plan in a country park, and urged rejection - she added this was the first proposal she had ever objected to regarding Nene Park.

Participants at the meeting. By Youtube