Investigation by Neil Mackay, Writer at Large

Questions have been raised about whether the relationship between Judy Murray and Nicola Sturgeon influenced a controversial decision by the Scottish Government to override the rejection of a multi-million-pound luxury housing and tennis development and grant permission for the project to go ahead, backed by taxpayers’ money, despite widespread opposition.

The controversy centres on plans for a development, backed by Judy Murray – the mother of tennis star Andy Murray – at the Park of Keir near Dunblane on green-belt land. Stirling Council rejected the plans in 2015, which include luxury housing, tennis courts, a hotel and golf facilities. After the plans were rejected, developers launched an appeal, but this was also refused following an inquiry in 2016 by a Government-appointed reporter.

However, Scottish ministers “recalled” the matter, bringing it into Government for decision-making, and overruled the refusal at the end of last year, giving the scheme the go-head. Campaigners and politicians have now raised a series of questions over the planned use of public funds to support the development, the decision to build on green-belt land, the overriding of local democracy, and a number of matters which they claim could be seen as a conflict of interest. There are concerns the issue raises questions about how power is used, and where influence sits, in Scotland.

Sportscotland – a public body answerable to the Scottish Government – has made a “provisional allocation of up to £5 million in its forward budgeting for the development”. Mark Ruskell, the Green MSP for Mid Scotland, was told by the Government that the funding consists “of a mix of Scottish Government and National Lottery funding”.

The documents

THE relationship between Judy Murray and Nicola Sturgeon has come under scrutiny. In a 2015 email seen by The Herald on Sunday with the subject “re: update: Stirling Council decision – Park of Keir tennis proposal”, an official from Active Scotland – part of the Scottish Government – says: “As discussed, the FM and Judy Murray are expected to have a meeting in the new year to discuss the development of tennis in Scotland and it is more than likely the decline of the proposal will come up.”

The same email notes that Jamie Hepburn, then Sports Minister, “is meeting with Tennis Scotland and Sportscotland tomorrow and part of that discussion will be around the handling of the meeting with the FM and Mrs Murray. Would you be able to provide me with a briefing contribution on planning process and any issues about recall”.

A 2016 email from Jamie Hepburn’s parliamentary assistant to Hepburn, at the time he was Sports Minister, notes that Blane Dodds – chief executive of Tennis Scotland, and a former director of Judy Murray’s foundation, the Murray Play Foundation between 2018 and 2019 – “just called the office looking to set up a meeting with … Judy Murray”.

A letter from John Bercow, when he was Speaker of the House of Commons, to Nicola Sturgeon in January 2017, advocates for the Park of Keir development. Bercow says: “I wholeheartedly support the project.”

HeraldScotland:

He goes on: “Naturally, I recognise that this decision is not straightforward and that sensitive planning matters are for the Scottish Government to consider … It deserves support, and it certainly has mine. It would be a decisive act of leadership to give the go-ahead to these plans … I do hope that it will be approved.”

In a 2018 email from Sportscotland, headed “Re: Park of Keir – Government meeting with Judy”, it is stated: “Blane is obviously in regular dialogue with JM re POK.” Another Sportscotland email from 2018 states that the author “met with Judy and a couple of her advisers at the Davis Cup match at the Emirates. She talked us through her plans and gave us an indication of the cost range and potential shortfall in funding, which from memory was around a £6-8 million gap. Our discussion was very much a repeat of her earlier meeting that day with the minister”.

A further Sportscotland email on the same date reads: “Government officials are going to be meeting Judy Murray in January. It seems she will ask what public funding is available to support the Park of Keir development.”

A letter to Tennis Scotland on behalf of the Murray Play Foundation in September 2018 states “we wish to submit an expression of interest in applying for support … for our project at Park of Keir”. In the minute of an October 2018 meeting by the Transforming Scottish Indoor Tennis Fund Steering Group – which involves Tennis Scotland and Sportscotland –Blane Dodds is noted as attending along with a Sportscotland official. The minute states: “Park of Keir was also discussed”.

The Herald has also seen the minutes of a meeting “to discuss the Park of Keir development” in 2019 between Tennis Scotland, the Scottish Government, the developer, VisitScotland, Scottish Enterprise and Sportscotland. The meeting was held at The Cromlix Hotel near Dunblane, owned by Andy Murray.

Other documents include a redacted letter to Nicola Sturgeon from the chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association dated May 2019. The letter thanks the First Minister for “the invitation to dinner last week” and states: “We spoke at length at the dinner about Park of Keir and I hope our support for the project came through loud and clear. I have personally undertaken to work with [redacted] development team to help evolve the plans and ensure that any development is viable and sustainable for [redacted] to take forward with her boundless energy and enthusiasm.”

The letter also states: “However, we remain focused on ensuring that the known provision gaps in Scotland are prioritised and that our investment delivers in the greatest areas of need, and for as many people as possible. If the requested investment from the LTA [Lawn Tennis Association] for Park of Keir is at a level of £5m as suggested, then we must be mindful that an investment of this size could provide around 20 indoor courts to build participation more broadly across Scotland.”

Correspondence dated February 2021 from the Scottish Government’s Head of Active Scotland division to Stewart Harris, chief executive of Sportscotland, talks of providing “Sportscotland with additional capital funding of up to £3,000,000 … The capital funding of up to £3,000,000 being allocated to Sportscotland relates to the proposed Murray legacy facility at Park of Keir”.

In other redacted correspondence from the Scottish Government’s Head of Active Scotland division to Stewart Harris of Sportscotland, it is stated: “The Scottish Government provided additional funding for the Park of Keir project in late 2020/21 [redacted]. Agreement has been reached that Sportscotland are permitted to use unused Grant in Aid from prior years up to a limit of £5,000,000 to support setting a balanced budget for these projects in 2021/22.”

An application by the Murray Play Foundation dated February 2019 was made to the Transforming Scottish Indoor Tennis Fund – overseen by Tennis Scotland, Sportscotland and the LTA.

In a redacted June 2019 letter from Nicola Sturgeon to the Lawn Tennis Association – where the recipient is blacked out – the First Minister says: “It was a pleasure to host you at Bute House [the First Minister’s official residence] recently and discuss the future of tennis in Scotland. Scotland is rightly proud of the success of both Andy and Jamie Murray on the global stage, and it is entirely appropriate to try and build on that success in terms of creating a lasting and meaningful legacy.

“I welcomed your commitment at the meeting … to work with partners in Scotland to deliver significant growth for tennis in Scotland while also delivering the Murray legacy. I also welcome your offer to work with [redacted] team to refine the Park of Keir proposal to ensure that it is viable and sustainable, while not compromising on the ambitious plans for the facility. I hope that through these discussions the LTA will be willing to both support the aspirations of the project and that in turn can be translated into financial support, providing the business model can be developed to the satisfaction of all partners involved.”

The First Minister adds that she has asked “Stewart Harris, chief executive officer at Sportscotland, to contact you directly with a view to facilitating these discussions”.

In May 2019, it was reported that Nicola Sturgeon was meeting Judy Murray to discuss funding for Scottish tennis.

The “summit” was part of a drive to create a long-lasting legacy for Andy Murray. It was reported that Tennis Scotland chief Blane Dodds and his counterpart at the Lawn Tennis Association, Scott Lloyd, would also be attending.

The campaigners

The Herald on Sunday spoke to a number of local campaigners and politicians who oppose the Park of Keir development. More than 1,000 people objected to the development. Local opposition was led by Residents Against Greenbelt Erosion (RAGE). Inga Bullen is RAGE chair, and Kathy Pidgeon RAGE secretary.

RAGE believes that the tennis centre is a “trojan horse” for lucrative luxury housing.

There have long been attempts by developers to build on the land, and campaigners feel it was only the celebrity clout of Judy Murray which got the development over the line this time.

Campaigners say that not only does the development destroy greenbelt land, it will also require visitors to the tennis centre to travel by car as it is relatively inaccessible by public transport and so brings into question the Scottish Government’s commitment to the environment. They also question why the development is needed at Park of Keir when the Scottish National Tennis Centre is based nearby at Stirling University.

HeraldScotland: LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 28: Judy Murray, Coach of the Union Jacks during day two of the St. James's Place Battle Of The Brits Team Tennis at National Tennis Centre on July 28, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images for Battle Of

Campaigners feel that local democracy has been trampled on given ministers pushed the development through in the face of widespread opposition after it was rejected by Stirling Council and again at appeal by a Government-appointed reporter tasked to investigate.

Ms Pidgeon said: “It makes the whole process feel meaningless. Nobody was listened to. It makes the decision-making process of the council and the reporter seem thoroughly redundant.”

Ms Bullen and Ms Pidgeon raised questions about whether the “friendly relationship” between Judy Murray and Nicola Sturgeon eased the way for development to be approved by ministers. RAGE also asked if there was a conflict of interest in the role of Blane Dodds from Tennis Scotland. Their overall feeling is that those with power and influence overshadow ordinary members of the public.

Ms Pidgeon said it felt like “special treatment was given which would not be afforded to other applicants or communities”.

On the issue of the use of public money funding the development, Ms Bullen said that if she were a celebrity “I wouldn’t expect the public to fund my project”.

She said she drew parallels with the special treatment Donald Trump received when he brought his business to Scotland. Ms Bullen added: “It just seems to mean that if you’ve got a high enough profile you can do whatever you want – and that the Scottish Government doesn’t care about our green spaces or the climate emergency.” Ms Pidgeon added that “celebrity seems more important than democracy”.

David Prescott, chair of Dunblane Community Council, said the development was “completely unsustainable” in terms of the environment and flew in the face of the Government’s green commitments. “It’s effectively suburbanising the countryside between Bridge of Allan and Dunblane,” he said.

Prescott added that “it was clear as soon as the ministers called it in, before the reporter started the process, that there was a Government desire for the development to go ahead”.

He said that given the decisions taken against the development, by the council and the reporter, campaigners had “won the process”. He added: “ We won the game according to the rules. But the ministers decided they didn’t want to do that.”

Prescott questioned how Blane Dodds, the chief executive of Tennis Scotland, could have any involvement in funding. “That leads to a very unhealthy environment where one side has an in to the process and the other side is excluded,” he said, adding: “The Scottish Government thinks we’re just ordinary people – not anybody. That’s the key issue – this feeling of exclusion. There was a feeling of almost contempt for our efforts.”

Mr Prescott went on: “I think Nicola Sturgeon admires Judy Murray – and in fairness I admire her too … but it doesn’t mean she has a monopoly on good ideas.” He added that he felt “celebrity and status” had played a role in decision-making.

He cited previous comments by Judy Murray in which she referenced spending £1 million apiece on 40 different tennis centres across the UK rather than £40m on just one site in London – and asked why this wasn’t now the case in Scotland.

Mr Prescott believes that any lottery funding would be “wrong when so many people in communities are being turned down for good causes”. He added that the development would “skew the market” and potentially put smaller sports clubs in the area out of business.

“We played fairly by the rules and won fair and square but ultimately our opponent Judy Murray won because the umpire told the line judges what calls to make and that is completely unfair,” he said.

“If Judy Murray is happy to have won on that kind of basis, would she be happy to win a tennis match like that? She’d think it appalling. This tells you an awful lot about Scotland today.”

The politicians

GREEN Party MSP Mark Ruskell said he felt the developer, Duncan King, had used “celebrity and the Murray legacy to push through the latest in a long line of development applications for the area, which is not appropriate and not democratic”. He added: “At the end of the day there’s profits to be made from attractive locations which are part of the green belt.”

Ruskell believes the development is “all about the housing” and reiterated concerns by local campaigners that the tennis development was a “trojan horse” for “luxury homes – all of this is wrapped up in the sale of executive mansions”.

He added that the developer had “come in with a celebrity backer and used their influence to get a positive planning approval. That sticks in people’s throats”.

Given the development was rejected by the council and the reporter, Ruskell questioned what effect the Government overriding those decisions would have on campaigners across Scotland and “people’s faith in politics”. He said: “I think people will feel: what’s the point? It speaks to where power lies in Scotland.”

Ruskell said he too wanted to see a “Murray legacy”, like other campaigners, and suggested that should be in “communities which have not had the opportunities to develop tennis. “This isn’t about building a Murray legacy, it’s about effectively delivering a development for a private developer. Primarily it’s driven by private profit,” he said.

“People are looking at this and saying ‘this feels like Trump’. This feels like a developer being given support in the planning process they shouldn’t have otherwise had.”

Due to the natural beauty of the landscape and the prime location, Ruskell added, “people will pay millions for houses on the site. There’s a lot of money to be made on this”.

He questioned the use of public funds for the development, adding there was a case for funding if the site was in a deprived community which both wanted and needed it.

Local Green Party councillor Alasdair Tollemache said: “People feel this decision was influenced by celebrity.”

He said luxury housing should not be built on the site and “we shouldn’t be using public money to subsidise a private venture for house building”. If lottery money was used, Tollemache added, “that means it won’t go elsewhere”.

There was no good environmental or economic reason for the development to go ahead, he said.

Conservative and Labour representatives have also criticised the Scottish Government giving the development the green light.

The right to reply

A SPOKESPERSON for sportscotland said: “We are committed to improving Scotland’s tennis infrastructure and are working with a range of partners to develop a number of potential projects across the country.

As part of this commitment, we have made a provisional allocation of up to £5m for the proposed development of a tennis facility at Park of Keir, with the support of both Scottish Government and National Lottery funding.

“At this stage, a full application has yet to be received and any decision on whether to provide investment, and the level of any award, will only be taken on completion of the application process and following a robust assessment. This would fully consider the strategic need and demand for the proposed facility, the impact it will have on sport and physical activity, and whether it is financially viable in both capital and revenue terms.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Ministers carefully considered all evidence relating to the planning application in making their decision.

“In reaching their view, ministers attached weight to the economic value of the proposed development and the regional and national importance of the sports facility.

“Granting consent has potential to bring strong sporting and recreational benefits to Scotland, increasing participation in sport while also providing facilities for the community. There will also be economic benefits for the local area and more widely.

“Ministers concluded that the housing development – limited to 19 houses – is required to help fund the tennis and golf centre, ensuring the sports facilities are publicly accessible at an affordable price. Benefits of the proposed scheme outweigh the loss of green belt and the applicant has agreed that no further houses will be built on the site.”

The Lawn Tennis Association said: “The LTA believes that Park of Keir would play an important role in delivering a legacy for the Murray family’s contribution to tennis in Britain and Scotland in particular.

“We are currently working with Judy Murray and supporting the project as we believe it has the opportunity to deliver a significant benefit to the tennis provision in Scotland. However, at this point, the final level of LTA investment is still to be determined.”

Blane Dodds of Tennis Scotland, stepped down from the Murray Play Foundation in 2019. It is understand that while there was an historic application from the foundation to the Transforming Scottish Indoor Tennis Fund (TSIT) programme which is jointly run by Tennis Scotland, Sportscotland and the LTA, this wasn’t progressed. It is also understood that any decision on future funding from the LTA for the Park of Keir project would be made by the LTA directly rather than via the TSIT programme or Tennis Scotland.

A spokesperson for the Park of Keir development said: “We are all excited to be developing a new community sport facility, which we hope will inspire many people in the local area and beyond to be active and enjoy playing sport and the outdoors.

“That is without doubt a good thing for the physical and mental health of people of all backgrounds and a tennis centre of national significance is a fitting legacy for the achievements of Jamie and Andy Murray.

“The planning process allowed for great scrutiny of the project and provided a platform for local people and others with an interest in the project to express a view.

“We have been respectful of that process at all times, and we won’t allow ourselves to be distracted by innuendo and misleading commentary.

“As the project takes shape, we are confident that people will share our sense of excitement and better understand the importance of facilities like this one in improving people’s health and giving the community easy and affordable access to playing sport.”