In 1973, when George Harrison donated the Manor building and estate, Hertsmere Borough Council allowed Bhaktivedanta Manor to operate as a theological college. At that time, Shrila Prabhupada established a Vaishnava college, with a shrine accessible to the public.
After initial complaints by some local village residents about the increase in traffic, Hertsmere Council decided to take strong action against the public worship. In 1981 it tried to stop worshippers and pilgrims by banning all festivals. Later, however, a compromise was reached to limit large festivals to six days a year.
In 1985, fourteen new complaints were sent to Hertsmere. These coincided with two devotees purchasing local property. Hertsmere took further action, but they failed to get an injunction from the High Court to curtail Sunday attendance. Hertsmere then issued an enforcement notice to close the temple to the public entirely. The temple launched an appeal to the Department of the Environment. At this time the temple also considered building a new driveway, an access route taking traffic around the village, but the plan to purchase land to build an access road fell through.
The congregational community of Bhaktivedanta Manor, largely Hindus, sent letters and petitions to the British government and held many protest events. In 1989, 7,000 people took part in a sponsored walk. Each step was a prayer: “Please keep our temple open for worship”. The community raised £100,000 to pay legal costs. But in 1990 the appeal was refused. The Secretary of State announced ‘No new temple. Stop your worship. Stop your festivals.’
The temple appealed to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the European Court. All said ‘No.’ Every legal channel had been exhausted. The date was therefore set: on March 16, 1994, the temple was to close to the public.
Then, just months before the deadline, negotiations for land opened up again. With the motto ‘Get the land – Build the road – Save the temple’ the temple went into action, and 250 people helped secure the funds to purchase land for the new driveway. The application was submitted to the Council.
March 16 was only months away, and the Council delayed considering the application. Many devotees and well-wishers both nationally and internationally expressed their concerns to the government. One hundred members of Parliament joined the list of supporters. The British government began to realise that this was not a small issue.
On Wednesday, March 16, the enforcement notice was taking effect. On that historical day, 36,000 people gathered in Westminster, in central London, the largest religious gathering in the world outside of India. People came from all over the country in a display of unity behind ISKCON. Hertsmere felt the pressure.
Akhandadhi Das, the temple president at the time, addressed the crowd of 36,000 with good news: ‘The Council has bowed to you. They are feeling the pressure! Last night, they told me that the gates of the temple can remain open until they consider our application for the new access road. The tide is turning!’ Although it was the darkest day, it turned out to be the turning point . . .
The new plan was good for the villagers, the temple and the worshippers. Unfortunately, what the planning experts at Hertsmere recommended, the politicians at Hertsmere still refused.
More fundraising followed, more lobbying of the MP’s, more campaigning. Much sympathetic media attention was paid, especially by the BBC. At the start of 1996 another appeal went to the Department of the Environment. The Public Enquiry lasted over six months and included speakers for and against the proposed access road. The temple was well represented by political and religious representatives, and even many local villagers supported the proposal.
Then the waiting. The temple went into the start of Shrila Prabhupada’s Centennial year (1996) with no clear indication as to when the decision would be given. In the meantime, worshippers continued to visit, despite being branded as criminals for breaking the enforcement that included Janmashtami 1994.
Without warning, the report from the Department of the Environment was issued, granting planning permission for Bhaktivedanta Manor! Upon hearing the news, devotees could hardly believe it.
In his concluding report, the Secretary of State acknowledged that ‘[the temple] is unique in the UK because there is no comparable alternative place for teaching, worship and meditation; and the level of provision of these religious facilities is to an exceptionally high standard. Furthermore, the close association of the Hare Krishna movement’s founder with the Manor makes it a special, if not unique place . . . so that association must continue.’
The campaign increased the fame of Bhaktivedanta Manor. It also increased the estate from 17 acres to 70 acres, with the purchases of the additional land for the access road, which also provided more festival parking space and more room for the temple cows.
The devotees would like to acknowledge that this historic victory would not have been possible without the keen and prolonged support of many temple managers, congregational members, residents, donors, and local and national businessmen and politicians. May Lord Krishna bless them all.