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Heated clash as controversial pitch revamp gets go-ahead

Planning chairman walks out of Town Hall meeting after objecting to ‘wrong’ decision to replace 11-a-side pitch

12 May, 2017 — By Jane Clinton, Koos Couvée

Councillor Martin Klute: ‘I came to the meeting knowing that the decision to grant planning permission was wrong so I left the room’

A DRAMATIC clash of views led to a planning chief walking out of a heated Town Hall meeting this week in an attempt to halt a controversial park revamp plan.

In an unprecedented turn of events, committee chairman Councillor Martin Klute made a sudden departure during his own committee’s discussions on Tuesday because he objected so strongly to Islington Council’s proposals for Barnard Park.

Cllr Klute, who has a reputation for being independently minded, said he no longer had an “open mind” regarding the planning application after Sport England, the government body tasked with promoting sports activity, objected to the plans because they would dramatically reduce the park’s full-size football pitch.

“I came to the meeting knowing that the decision to grant planning permission was wrong so I left the room,” he told the Tribune.

“Sport England’s views on this are very important. If Sport England say the pitch should be retained then that sports area is sacrosanct and should be retained.

“I could not possibly chair the meeting because I was so sure that the objection meant it should be refused on that basis.”

Nevertheless, planning permission was granted after the remaining four councillors voted unanimously to approve the application.

But the long-running planning row between residents and groups using the pitch is set to continue as the final decision now rests with the Secretary of State because of Sport England’s objection.

The proposals would see the current 11-a-side pitch, which is in a poor state, replaced by a floodlit, 7-a-side artificial pitch, allowing for new paths, grassy areas, picnic tables and a barbecue area. The council has secured £850,000 for changes at the park.

The Friends of Barnard Park have backed the plans, but Sport England, the Copenhagen Youth Project, the Football Association (FA) and Arsenal in the Community oppose them.

There was heckling from frustrated residents against the pitch closure as the meeting continued under committee vice-chairman, Cllr Tim Nicholls.

Youngsters from Highbury Football School with Dave Scrafton, manager of Highbury Wolves, Alfie Ryan of Arsenal in the Community and head coach Tegan Anton

Children from Highbury Football School attended in their football kits and gave out leaflets detailing their objections.

As it was recommended that planning permission should be granted, one man shouted: “Labour council? Disgraceful!”

Andrew Bedford, the council’s green space and leisure chief, was heckled with cries of “rubbish” and “ridiculous” as he outlined the justification for a reduced-size pitch.

As tempers frayed Cllr Nicholls stopped proceedings several times, reminding those in attendance that such comments were unacceptable.

Council officers had met with Sport England, asking it to withdraw the objections but the public body refused, stating that protection of such sporting areas should be preserved.

“It doesn’t happen very often (for the chair to leave the meeting),” Cllr Klute added. “But it was rather unusual for officers to put up a report for approval when it was so obvious that Sport England were in objection to it.”

Members of the planning committee are required to approach planning applications with an open mind. If they know they already have a strong view for or against an application before a meeting of the committee, they are required to announce a “predetermination” and cannot take part.

The planning report states that there would be a 30 per cent loss of area for playing sports.

But Cllr Klute said the figures put forward in the plans regarding the new amount of space for sport were “disingenuous”.

“Officers are telling us it was a 30 per cent loss [of sports area] but I did a quick bit of maths and worked out it is actually 70 per cent,” he said. “The figures are disingenuous.”

In a letter to the council, Sport England said: “Reducing the facility in size will result in a loss of an area that has the potential to provide increased opportunities for sport in the local area.”

It added that both the FA and the Rugby Football Union would be willing to “help fund a replacement pitch”.

It also states that the grass area which has been deemed available to play sports would “not provide any significant benefit to the use of the space for formal sport”, adding that it would not be big enough to accommodate a game of rounders.

However, Dianne Browning, of the Friends of Barnard Park, said: “We’re relieved that the plan was accepted. It was supported by nine diverse local community groups. We await the next stage in the process.”

Karen Sullivan, the Town Hall’s service director of planning and development, said: “The planning committee considered this decision very thoroughly, at great length, and considered carefully opinions from both sides.“The committee decided that the plans set out an appropriate balance between providing space for people to play football and those who want to use the park for other leisure activities.”

The decision will now go to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who will make a decision on whether to “call in” the application.

Additional reporting by David McGuinness


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