Feature: It’s taken decades but the Hatters are closing in on a new home at last

Plans for Power Court, as seen from above
Plans for Power Court, as seen from above

After endless false dawns over the last few decades, Luton Town FC finally appears to have stadium plans that are built to last.

In Power Court the club has a site that is centrally located, a five minute walk from the town’s main train station and in dire need of regeneration.

Power Court, Luton

Power Court, Luton

Suitable sites for a new stadium in Luton are few and far between and the prospect of a move out of the town always seemed remote.

Due to the ambitions of the Hatters, club chief executive Gary Sweet and the rest of Luton Town 2020’s board rejected the chance to build a new home on land by M1 junction 10a– though the site still remains integral to the overall project.

In 2013 the club secured an option agreement on the land from the family of former Hatters owner Mike Watson-Challis.

In August it bought the site from the Watson-Challis’s for £10million and unveiled plans for a mixed-use development, primarily comprising of office space.

Town chief executive Gary Sweet unveiled the club's proposals on Monday morning

Town chief executive Gary Sweet unveiled the club's proposals on Monday morning

On Monday Mr Sweet told journalists that the potential of the land has long been recognised.

Indeed, an infamous scene in 2004 BBC documentary ‘Trouble At The Top’ shows former chairman John Gurney heralding the site’s profitability.

“It’s the intention of Luton Town FC, or London Luton as it might then be known, to take the eventual development profits,” he said.

According to Mr Sweet, 2020 has only ever considered relocation of the club to J10 as a “last, last resort.”

Its directors have always favoured a move into the town centre rather than out of it, he added.

However Power Court is not without its challenges.

At present the 20 acre site still houses a substation and sits on contaminated land.

The River Lea also poses a problem as it runs directly under the site and, in Mr Sweet’s own words, at present it is “a little bit unwell”.

In the club’s plans the culverted stretch of the river will be uncovered and transformed into a feature outside the new stadium.

This ambitious aspect of the development and the site’s shortcomings will add to the final price but are not insurmountable hurdles, Mr Sweet asserted.

He said: “You can see why we have been quite ambitious with our plans for junction 10 and for the rest of Power Court, for that to fund the football stadium.

“Whilst we have complete ownership of J10 we don’t yet have full ownership of Power Court but that is well on its way.”

He added: “Luton gets so much bad press that sometimes when we’ve got the opportunity to correct that a little bit we want to take it.

“Everybody involved in this are either Bedfordshire or Luton people and we care passionately not only about the club but the town too.”

Within hours of Monday’s announcement Hatters fans set up a petition calling for Luton Borough Council to back the club’s plans for Power Court, which at the time of writing has more than 1,300 signatures.

Given the lengthy discussions that have been held between the club and the council, there is little need for an additional push.

Opening his presentation to the press on Monday, Mr Sweet indicated that the council’s support has underpinned the club’s efforts.

He said: “The football club has had a disastrous history of engaging with its council.

“Right back to the day (former LTFC chairman)David Evans sold the ground to the council.

“The council has been very gracious in allowing us to play at Kenilworth Road and effectively have a free rent.

“Through austerity measures those times have had to change.

“Whilst we still have a free rent period here on our lease that will probably have to change if we stayed– times are different.”

He added: “Our relationship with the council when we first took off wasn’t the best and that primarily was because as afootball club we didn’t have a good track record.

“Now the relationship with our council and bordering councils is excellent.

“Particularly Luton– we share their visions.

“We have faith in investing in the town for that reason.

“If the relationship with the council was as it was in previous regimes it would be very difficult for us to put down the sums of money we are committing to.”

Despite LBC’s assistance with the club’s plans, the Hatters will still be subject to planning requirements that bound every large development.

The Hatters expect to submit a planning application to the council by August 2016, before which it will display its proposals at public exhibitions.

The club hopes to have the stadium ready for the start of the 2020-21 season in August 2020.

The cost of the entire project has not yet been disclosed, but it is something that Mr Sweet has said will be discussed “further down the line”.

The name of the new stadium is not yet determined, though the Hatters chief executive admitted that the club may consider selling naming rights to an advertiser.

He added: “Naturally we would like to create a name for the stadium and for it to be known as that but if a sponsor would like to bolt itself onto that name we wouldn’t necessarily be against that.

“At the end of the day we are a commercial organisation, any funding we get from sponsors goes straight into the football team and that makes it better.

“I don’t think the supporters would argue with that principle.

“Who knows, maybe if it is called Power Court there will be a few energy companies interested.”