Luton Town’s Grounds For Optimism
We may mourn the loss of the quirkiness of the English football stadium, as more and more of them are demolished to make way for shiny new replacements, but that doesn’t mean that this shouldn’t happen. Within the next couple of months, York City will leave Bootham Crescent for the final time, moving to a purpose-built, all-seater stadium on the outskirts of town. And this week, Luton Town won a case at the High Court which removed the final obstacle to the club leaving Kenilworth Road, having spent 64 years looking for a new home.
Kenilworth Road is certainly idiosyncratic, and for the once-a-season away visitor, there is a certain hint of novelty about a ground with nothing but executive boxes along one side and an away end that you get into through a house, but with a capacity of only just over 10,000 and completely hemmed in on all four sides – looking at an aerial view of the ground is a bit like looking at a duck that’s got itself wedged inside a milk bottle – it was clear that this venue was no longer fit for purpose. Pinned in by roads and a railway line, it’s astonishing in its own way that they managed to fit a football ground into the available space in the first place. We may all have found it quirky, but we didn’t have to call it home.
Bucking the trend of much of the last thirty years, Luton are moving closer to their town centre than Kenilworth Road, which is a bracing walk from the railway station, to say the least. The plan is for a 23,000 capacity stadium called Power Court, to be financed by a shopping and leisure facility next to the M1 called Newlands Park. Opposition to the plans had come from Capital & Regional, owners of the former Arndale Centre in the town centre, which is now known as The Mall. Their legal argument rested on three claims:
- “A serious omission in the assessment of the impact of the Development on affected designated heritage assets.”
- “An incorrect approach to the application of the sequential test found in the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework.)”
- “Flawed advice to members in relation to the linkage between the application for the Planning Permission and the application for development on the Power Court site.”
Anyone who visited it might consider Capital & Regional’s interest in the well-being of Luton town centre to be somewhat ironic, considering the condition The Arndale Centre fell into before its refurbishment, which was completed in 2012. All of this, however, is somewhat irrelevant. In November, the council stated that, “We remain entirely confident the decision-making process contained no legal flaws, which is a view supported by our legal representatives who have been scrutinising the grounds for challenge put forward.”
Capital & Regional tried to force a judicial review of the matter, but this was rejected. They could still, however, apply for a review of the case, and it was this review which came through at the start of this week. Rejected again, they confirmed that they would not be seeking to take the matter further, but still found the time to issue a petulant statement in which they claimed that the new project was “unviable” anyway. Developers have estimated the new stadium alone will generate as much as an additional £68.2m for the local economy up to July 2040, when compared with staying at Kenilworth Road, while the council’s robust support of their own planning application process has been notable for comment from them confirming the need to regenerate the town centre.
Few other Football League clubs have had a twenty-first century as busy as Luton Town have had. The rollercoaster ride picked up speed when John Gurney took control of the club in May 2003, sacked the manager and tried to find a replacement through a telephone vote, suggested a merger with Wimbledon and made pie in the sky plans for a 50,000 capacity stadium before leaving the club in administration. Former touring car driver David Pinkney took ownership of Luton with the club already in free-fall, but left the following year following an investigation into the illegal agents’ payments.
This was concluded in the summer of 2008, and the club was handed a ten-point deduction for the 2008/09 season on, along with a £50,000 fine. The club’s recent history of administrations meant that the Football League only offered to return the club’s “Golden Share” (which entitles a club to remain a member of the organisation) to Luton on the condition that they play with a further twenty-point deduction.
It was an astonishing decision on the part of the Football League, not least because none of those implicated in the wrong-doings committed were anything to do with the club any more. Relegation from the Football League was pretty much inevitable from the moment that the points deduction was handed down, but the club did manage one final valedictory act of defiance against these ridiculously harsh penalties, taking 40,000 supporters to Wembley to see the team beat Scunthorpe United to win the Football League Trophy. Eight days, they were relegated from the Football League after 89 years.
It took Luton Town five years to get that Football League place back again, and two successive promotions have taken the club back to the Championship this season for the first time since 2007, when they were in the midst of a crisis from which they may never have recovered. They’re bottom of the table at present, but they’re still in touch with the teams above them and it’s entirely conceivable that this week’s news could have an entirely beneficial effect on the team, even though recent form has been poor.
Luton’s performance in the Championship demonstrates why the need for a new stadium is so pressing. As has been witnessed with the shenanigans concerning Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham City already this season, this particular division has more than a hint of desperation about it, with clubs stretching rules to bursting point in the pursuit of the Premier League’s El Dorado. Luton Town have to be competitive if they’re to stay at this level and grow as a club (and yes, Bournemouth managed it with a stadium that holds 11,000 people, but they only achieved this through smashing FFP regulations), and there seems little question that this development has the potential to be transformative for both Luton Town and the town of Luton itself. After everything that has happened to Luton Town over the last couple of decades or so, this week’s news is no less than the supporters and those running the club deserve.