Council serves up refurbished tennis courts but free play is limited

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Refurbished tennis courts at Southfields Kempston. Image: Bedford Borough Council
Refurbished tennis courts at Southfields Kempston. Image: Bedford Borough Council

Family passes, online booking and coaching programs are among the changes made to Bedford’s municipal tennis courts, which have been upgraded thanks to £370,000 funding.

Works have already concluded at Allen Park and Southfields, with Bedford Park, Mowsbury Park, and Russell Park soon to be ‘match fit’.

And a spokesperson for Bedford Borough Council said, “they are excited to unveil the future arrangements that promise to elevate the tennis experience for all residents”.

The investment for the renovation has come from central government and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) and the courts will be managed by the National Tennis Association (NTA).

Pay to play and LTA Barclays Free Park Tennis

A condition of the funding is that the courts must be sustainable so access to the refurbished courts will require bookings, with the introduction of court booking fees to ensure maintenance of the facilities.

Playing fees are either a ‘pay-per-hour’ rate of £6 for one-off games or a household annual pass priced at £40. The annual pass offers two hours of court time per day for less than 80p per week for the whole family.

“The introduction of these fees will contribute to a dedicated fund aimed at financing future repairs and maintenance of the courts,” said a spokesperson for Bedford Borough Council.

“Moreover, Bedford Borough will participate in the LTA’s Barclays Free Park Tennis initiative, offering weekly hour-long group sessions where everyone is welcome to join in and all equipment is provided.”

Councillor Jim Weir, (Conservative) Portfolio Holder for environment, highways, and transport, said, “The refurbishment of Bedford Borough park tennis courts represents a pivotal moment for our community.

“These facilities serve as vital hubs for sport, recreation, and community engagement, and the improvements will ensure that they continue to fulfil their role for years to come.”

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the changes.

Terry Monks, a regular user of the free courts in Bedford Park, told the Bedford Independent: “The renovated Bedford Park courts were supposed to be accessible a few weeks ago but though the courts are now ready the booking system is still not working after three months of disruption.

“I still fail to see how making people have to pre-book and pay with only three courts available now rather than the nine free-to-play courts we had before is somehow improving local access to the sport.”

She said that among the new rules are a ban on dark-soled shoes and food or drink on the courts. “Again, it just really puts people off wanting to or feeling able to play.

“As someone who used to play tennis regularly in Bedford Park I can only tell you that it doesn’t feel as though this has improved my access to the sport at all and I feel really sad about that.

“It just contributes to the general experience that I think we’re all sharing at the moment of having to pay more for less.”

However, Cllr Weir said this heralded a “new era of simple booking” removing the uncertainty of finding occupied courts or lengthy queues.

“Residents will have the ability to secure court time in advance, through a user-friendly booking system. This ensures immediate access to the court upon arrival, allowing residents to begin their game promptly.

“For any users who do not have access to a smartphone or the internet, there will be a provision to make a booking with National Tennis Association by phone.”

In addition to the structured programs, two hours of free informal tennis play will be available at each of the seven park tennis court sites each week. In total, this will deliver fourteen hours of free access to courts for people to play each week.

Further details and updates on the park tennis courts, including booking information and coaching programmes will become available at clubspark.lta.org.uk/BedfordParksTennis.

Henry Vann, (Lib Dems) councillor for the area including Bedford Park, said: “Locked. Empty. Courts.

“The Conservative administration has shown complete contempt for the views and concerns of local residents. Gone are residents’ free tennis courts, replaced by paid-for access to part of our park with only a paltry two-hour free slots a week available for booking. 

“In Bedford Park alone, there used to be nine free turn-up and play courts, now there are three pay-to-play courts. The council must put in place free turn-up-and-play courts alongside these now.”