Temple and villagers seek road to harmony

`If they get permission we'll have no control over the numbers' Andrew Brown on the row over a `centre for public worship'

Hertsmere Borough Council had "dithered and fumbled and bumbled" itself into opposing an access road to a Hindu temple in rural Hertfordshire, a planning inquiry was told yesterday.

David Altaras, representing the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, was speaking at the opening day of the inquiry, which hopes to resolve a 20-year-old dispute between a Hindu seminary and temple and most inhabitants of the village of Letchmore Heath.

The hearing follows thecouncil's failure to reach a decision on the temple's application for change of use to a centre for public worship.

About 150 spectators, mostly Hindus, attended the inquiry in Borehamwood to hear Mr Altaras, who wore a pinstripe suit, half-moon spectacles, and, for his opening remarks, a garland of flowers over his tie.

He said local opposition to the temple had almost disappeared since 1988, when planning permission for it to be used for worship was first refused. The temple has options on the land necessary to build a slip road from the nearby A41 in order to relieve traffic congestion around the village caused by pilgrims prepared to queue for eight hours to spend 20 seconds in the company of the deities at six major festivals every year. Such devotion is little appreciated in the village of Letchmore Heath (pop 248), which appears unchanged since about 1925. It is the sort of idyllic place to which a millionaire might retire. That is how the trouble started.

Bakhtivedanta Manor, formerly Piggots' Manor, was given to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness by the former Beatle George Harrison in 1973.

The following year a set of statues of gods and goddesses, referred to by their Hindu attendants as deities, were set up in a temple inside the mock-Tudor mansion. Since then the deities have been tended night and day by 50 full-time theological studentsand have in consequence acquired a holiness unequalled in Europe, and scarcely surpassed in India, Mr Altaras said.

He said the proposals before the inquiry, which will in the end be decided by John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, would balance "the legitimate aspirations of the Hindu community to worship and on the other hand the amenities of the residents of Letchmore Heath".

However, Philip Marsh, chairman of the letchmore Heath village trust, said the temple might be planning a huge expansion of its operations if they were made legal. "If they get permission for public worship, and their own access road, we will have absolutely no control over the numbers there.

"I worry that if they can get 20,000 people coming to an illegal and, they say, unadvertised, festival, how many will come for a legal and widely advertised one?" Mr Marsh said.

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