Following relegation from the Football League at the end of last season, Barnet Football Club has made a reasonable start to life back in the non-league game in the Conference National. With thirteen matches of the new season played the club sits in tenth place in the table, a position which may be slightly misleading, considering that its points tally leaves it just three points off a place in the play-offs. The current drama at the club, however, is all coming away from the pitch as owner Tony Kleanthous, who has started to come to resemble a man who could start an argument in an empty room so long as that room was a council chamber, locks horns with another North London local authority.
There was a sense of weary resignation about the club’s departure from Underhill, the ground that it had called home since 1907, at the end of last season. A dispute over access to part of the ground with the local council was the reason given as being the straw that broke the camel’s back for staying there, but the club’s departure from the London Borough of Barnet to the London Borough of Harrow doesn’t appear to have eased the difficulties that the club is having with local authorities. Having said that, however, it would seem that it has taken only a few months for Kleanthous to find himself in a dispute with the Harrow Borough Council over alleged breaches of the planning permission for the club’s new ground, The Hive.
The braches alleged by the council relate to the West Stand at the ground, which the council has stated is eighteen feet taller than planning permission had been granted for, and the floodlights, which are taller than had been originally agreed. The club has been served with an enforcement notice, which gives it six months to demolish the stand and three months to remove the floodlights or risk facing prosecution. It does, however, have a right to appeal the decision which will postpone the requirement to do so, and it has, as might have been expected, already confirmed that it will do so. Furthermore the club has also issued a statement which defended its position over this matter in which it stated that:
The Hive West Stand was increased in height when it was discovered that a few hundred spectators on the East Stand opposite, for which The Hive already had approval, had to be relocated in order to meet new guidelines on spectator sight lines. The Council were aware of this change and officers supported this minor amendment at a recent planning meeting.
The Hive also had planning permission in 2008 for new floodlights but once they realised these may cause an issue for those close to the site as the glare from the lights would have been approximately at the level of the first floor windows of the adjacent houses a remedy was sought. Acting as a good neighbour and in order to lessen this problem, they decided to spend an extra £30,000 and increase the height of the floodlight masts by 10 metres so that they can be aimed down by an angle greater [and] cause less light spillage to adjoining properties.
All of this is well and good, but the obvious question to ask at this stage is that of why the club pressed ahead with – no matter whether they felt that they acting in the best interests of others or not – constructions for which they had no permission. The club blames delays in the process of getting final planning permission for this, stating that the original application was due to be heard in June, before delays and deferrals brought about by a period of political instability within the council itself meant waiting until September before it could eventually be heard. The club itself, of course, had to have a new stadium in place for the start of the new season. It also argues that the council’s planning department was kept up to date throughout the construction of the stadium.
The position of the council and other local politicians, however, seems to be unwavering on the subject. Councillor Stephen Greek, the new cabinet member for planning who issued the enforcement notice on behalf of the council, stated that, ““If a developer fails to get planning permission for a structure, then it is only right and fair that we should ask them to remove it. This is an important issue for many residents and it is vital that the council takes the necessary and appropriate action,” while local Member of Parliament for Harrow East Bob Blackman, who has spoken vociferously against the club being able to play there, stated that, “I congratulate Cllr Stephen Greek for taking this strong stance against the blatant flouting of the planning agreement which Barnet Football Club signed up to. Until now, Barnet FC have been allowed to play fast and loose with Harrow Council, by Harrow Council.”
It has been suggested before that the disputes between Kleanthous and these local authorities may be party politically based. After all, both Barnet and Harrow Borough Councils are currently Conservative-led and Kleanthous has solid links to the Labour Party. If this is the case, then getting to the truth of who may be right and who may be wrong between the football club and the local councils have been dealing with it is unlikely to prove to be easy. Barnet supporters seem to continue to largely back Kleanthous, but this doesn’t mean that this story is necessarily completely black and white, and it must be concerning for those who recognise that Barnet Football Club will likely need the assistance of its local authorities in the future regardless of personality clashes if the club is to ever return to its home Borough. If Tony Kleanthous doesn’t start building more bridges in the future, he may well find that his “temporary” stay in Edgware lasts for longer than anybody would wish for.
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