Airport company bid for Luton's Wigmore Park isn't a level playing field, say campaigners
Parish councils wanting to acquire Wigmore Valley Park to prevent it being bulldozed as part of London Luton Airport expansion plans are at a disadvantage to the borough council’s airport company, according to a local campaign group.
An examination hearing into a development consent order (DCO) application by London Luton Airport Limited (LLAL) heard the local authority’s executive has agreed in principle to the disposal of the park.
LLAL, trading as Luton Rising, and the council “have been in active talks to secure a long lease of the park to the airport company”, barrister for the applicant Rebecca Clutton told the hearing.
“Negotiations on the heads of terms are now at an advanced stage,” she confirmed. “Aside from the formalities in relation to the 1972 Local Government Act and compliance with the disposal of an asset of community value, discussions are well progressed between the parties.”
Asked about the length of the lease, she replied: “Under discussion at the moment is 250 years, so it’s an effective freehold. This gives us the rights to complete future proposed works.
“With a lease, the landlord retains an element of control. The agreement between the parties is likely to be reached by the end of the examination, but not the acquisition itself.
“There’s the advertising of the sale of the community asset and the potential for other bids to be made. No disposal could be implemented until the end of the moratorium period, which is expected to begin early next year.
“We think we should retain compulsory acquisition powers. If the agreement failed for any reason, we keep the authority needed to acquire the land.”
LBC’s strategic and commercial asset manager Mark Davie explained: “If a qualifying organisation indicates it wants to bid, there’s a six-month moratorium.
“We advertise the planned disposal and invite bids from any qualifying organisation. It must be a constituted group and not an incorporated community group.
“LBC’s executive committee considers all the bids and decides which is accepted.”
Peter White, from the Friends of Wigmore Park, said: “We believe the applicant has an unfair advantage over other parties interested in leasing or buying Wigmore Valley Park.
“The borough council won’t entertain any alternative applications for the park. There are two current assets of community value interests in namely Kings Walden and Offley parish councils.
“It won’t be granted (to the parishes) because LBC needs airport expansion to stay solvent. The applicant says it would pay market value for the land, but how that’s funded is also unfair.
“A parish council would need to raise the money from public donations and commercial loans at market rates. The applicant can obtain the funds from the £199m solvency funds advanced to it by LBC, which the council borrows from the public works loans board.
“It’s the UK taxpayer funding this purchase, not the applicant. How can that be a fair playing field for these parish councils?”
Mr Davie added: “We’re free to dispose of the land to whoever we wish, as long as tests under the 1972 Act are met.”