Luton Town Football Club and its fans made a show of unity against The Mall owner Capital & Regional on Friday evening – vowing to go ahead with the proposed stadium at Power Court.
In a highly-charged public meeting at the High Town Club, C&R executive Ken Ford appeared to defend remarks he’d made against the football ground in a BBC Three Counties Radio interview last month.
His arguments against the proposed stadium were met with anger and derision from a crowd overwhelmingly in its favour.
And in a direct confrontation, LTFC chief executive Gary Sweet accused Mr Ford of threatening behaviour and swore never to sell the Power Court land to C&R - which has announced its own alternative vision of an ‘urban park’ for Power Court.
Mr Ford told the gathering: “There’s no doubt that a sporting venue’s crowds don’t sit well with the leisurely shopping experience. It can put people off.”
Insisting that Power Court was “not ideal” and that the stadium would be the “dominant building” in the town, Mr Ford added that the associated Newlands Park development off Junction 10 would “suck the lifeblood from the town centre” - prompting jeers from the audience.
Luton MPs Gavin Shuker and Kelvin Hopkins appeared alongside deputy leader of Luton Borough Council, Cllr Sian Timoney, and chairman of Luton Town Supporters Trust Tony Murray - all of whom spoke strongly in favour of the Power Court stadium.
Making several direct swipes at C&R, Mr Murray accused The Mall of turning Luton into a “ghost town” in the evening. He added : “A boycott of The Mall is a weapon in our arsenal.”
Angry calls for a boycott were met with a muted response from the politicians on the panel. Mr Shuker told audience members he hoped C&R would drop its opposition.
He said: “There’s a thirst [in Luton] for the regeneration that has not come in the previous decade.”
Cllr Timoney told audience members the Power Court stadium and the associated mixed-use development at Junction 10 were integral parts of Luton’s planned £1.5bn investment framework.
Asked about the progress of the planning application, Cllr Timoney said it was understood to be around 9/10 prepared for submission and that a decision could be reached before the end of the year.
In a direct confrontation, Gary Sweet challenged Ken Ford and said LTFC had made significant changes to its plans in order to satisfy C&R.
He said: “We did a lot to make changes. At the last meeting we had, you broadly threatened to kick us in the long grass... to take us to court.”
Although Mr Ford apologised, the two men could not agree on terms to meet again. Mr Sweet insisted he would only enter back into talks with C&R if the company dropped its alternative plans for Power Court - an offer which Mr Ford declined.
The panel fielded numerous questions from the public, all entirely in favour of the Power Court stadium. Mr Ford repeatedly referred to C&R’s “commitment” to the town centre while facing a grilling from the public.
Accusing a PR officer from C&R of attempting to intervene in the debate, panel chair Justin Dealey nevertheless thanked Mr Ford for appearing in person to answer to fans directly.