The Lutonites And The Planners Of Babylon
Planning is the most subjective procedure in the country. An official ‘favour’ susceptible to subtle power games. The Exodus Collective’s latest cultural proposals have pitched them against those who hold the local planning reigns. Of course, exposures follow.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 33.
"It seemed to me that Exodus on this occasion, and not for the first time, were being treated less fairly than a good many other applicants,” said David Franks on the steps of Luton Town Hall.
And Franks should know. As well as leading the Liberal Democrat group on Luton Borough Council, he has also been a member of the local Planning Committee for 13 years and is well placed to notice anything unusual about the way planning applications are dealt with. He is also keen to see that all groups get equally fair treatment. “I can’t see why Exodus should be treated any different from any other applicant,” he says.
The application Franks is referring to is the Exodus Collective’s proposal to turn a central Luton warehouse, empty for the last three years, into a community centre. It’s the latest in a long line of confrontations with officialdom that is turning the Exodus story into an ongoing investigation into who exactly runs our counties, towns and cities. And indeed, how they don’t take kindly to being challenged. The latest log jam in the cultural river is Chief Planning Officer for Luton Town, David Watts MRTPI, FRICS, FIMgt, etc.
The history is simple. Exodus submitted a proposal to the Luton Borough Council Planning Committee for a much needed community centre in central Luton. The Borough Council’s own youth survey, conducted in 1994, had already shown that such a venue was necessary. The disaffected boredom that provided much of the dry kindling for the Marsh Farm riots this summer merely confirmed what was already known. A venue was required where the youth of Luton could find some sense of collective gathering; a place where the disaffected could dance and vent their Arndale Centre allergies.
The Exodus proposal included measures to curb the noise disturbance for the local community and facilitate car parking in the area. However, when Luton’s Chief Planning Officer submitted his report to the planning committee, he failed to mention either of these measures. As car parking and noise production are two of the foremost planning criteria for a public venue, his omissions are unusual. Feeling cheated by the report, Exodus asked to address the committee itself, so bypassing the Chief Planning Officer’s selected interpretation of their proposal. Glenn Jenkins, spokesperson for the Collective, held the ears of the committee for 27 minutes as he explained how Watts’ report had missed out most of the important elements of the proposal. The Planning Committee were so concerned that the Chief Planning Officer’s report was one sidedly dismissive of Exodus’ proposals, that they agreed to suspend a decision and pay a visit to the warehouse site. On the day of the site visit, members of the Exodus Collective arrived to show the committee what they had in mind but were told that they were not permitted to speak with any member of the committee. Instead the guided tour of the site was given by Watts.
“I have not been obstructive,” insisted David Watts on the steps of the Town Hall.
At the second planning meeting, members of Exodus arrived at the Town Hall to find that, without discussion, their proposal had been turned down, despite a request that the decision be further suspended pending a public meeting. The suggested public meeting was designed to facilitate an opportunity for Exodus to meet and answer any fears held by objectors to the proposal. It is highly unusual for a planning committee to refuse a decision deferral on the basis of a pending public meeting, but in this case they had done so. Why?
It transpires that only Watts was aware that Exodus had asked for a deferral and that he had omitted to tell the Committee of their request when the decision had come before the meeting. In truth, David Watts is not under any obligation to remind the committee of what was already in their paperwork, but Exodus’ deferral request had been buried on page 165 of the committee’s documents for the meeting. It transpires that not one member of the committee had read it of their own accord.
The Koladome proposal was the subject of hundreds of objections, whilst Exodus’ proposal was opposed by just six. The Koladome was given planning permission….. but Exodus’ proposal was not.
This in itself is a testament to fickleness of the planning committee process, rendering it open to the abuse of selectively chosen applications and the subtle steering of the committee’s attention.
At the first planning meeting, Exodus’ request had been considered alongside a proposal for a massive entertainment complex called the Koladome, to be backed by Luton Town Football Club and Whitbread Breweries (Whitbread’s HQ is in Luton and Samuel Whitbread is Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire). The Koladome proposal was the subject of hundreds of objections, whilst Exodus’ proposal was opposed by just six. The Koladome was given planning permission first time round by the planning committee but Exodus’ proposal was not. Anonymous leaflets were also posted through letterboxes near to the site of Exodus’ proposed community centre saying: “Do you wish to oppose permission to use premises in Bolton Road by Exodus for all night rave parties every month. These will attract up to 3,000 people and will mean noisy music, people wandering the streets all night and increased traffic. Please write to David Watts, Chief Planning Officer, stating your objection.”
Although a negative decision had already been made by the planning committee, a reminder of Exodus’ request for deferral persuaded members of the committee to reconsider their decision. As a result, they voted to defer the decision pending a public meeting.
The public meeting was held and eight objectors showed up. The local press rather unusually reported the event favourably towards Exodus. At last giving public vent to Exodus’ previously ignored proposals to deal with the car parking and noise problems arising from running such a community centre.
The final planning decision was made on September 27th at a meeting packed to the town hall brim with members and empathisers of the Exodus Collective.
The chairman of the planning committee stood up and announced that planning permission was to be denied and that the committee would not allow any member of Exodus to speak.
At this point the entire contents of the room stood up and walked out.
“We came here to speak to our elected representatives and we were denied that right,” said an Exodus spokesperson. “We’ve used up all their red tape.”
David Watts has told Exodus that any complaint they have about his conduct can be registered through the local authority ombudsman. Exodus on the other hand consider they have got better things to do with the years it takes to process an ombudsman’s complaint.
“There will now be regular dances in this county - planning permission or no planning permission, injunction or no injunction,” says an Exodus spokesperson.
To see Squall's full coverage of Exodus click here