Delays to Islamic community centre slammed as ‘shameful’ and ‘Islamophobic’
A bid to turn a former theatre into an Islamic place of worship has been delayed to allow councillors to gain more information about the scheme’s impact.
Markaz El Tathgheef el-Eslami, a charity, applied to Barnet Council to turn the Grade 2-listed Hippodrome in North End Road, Golders Green, into a place of worship and a community centre.
Planning officers at the council recommended giving the go-ahead to the change, claiming in their report that the public benefits would outweigh the harm to residents.
But at a meeting of the council’s strategic planning committee on Monday, councillors deferred a decision on the application to obtain more information on parking, traffic management, noise and crowd control.
Built in 1913 as a music hall and “theatre of varieties”, the Hippodrome, which lies within Golders Green Conservation Area, was bought by the BBC in the 1960s and used as a concert and rehearsal venue for the BBC Concert Orchestra until 2003.
In 2007 the building was sold to a church organisation and the council granted permission for it to be used as a church, as well as for concerts, conferences, drama and dance festivals.
Markaz El Tathgheef el-Eslami bought the building in 2017 and has been using it since then. After the council served an enforcement notice for a planning breach, the charity applied last year for the building’s use to be widened from “church” to “place of worship”. Barnet Council received 902 objections and 756 letters in support of the application.
Paul Mew, a traffic consultant appointed by a local residents’ group, told the planning meeting an increase in visitors to the Hippodrome would lead to a “severe impact on congestion and parking” and “potential road safety issues”.
A planning report states that the venue would attract “80 and 100 visitors on some evenings and very few on others”, adding that this could rise to 500 visitors for certain events and a maximum of 1,400 during festivals.
Under questioning from councillors, Paul admitted the site, which is next to a bus and tube station, was “well served” by public transport, but pointed out that an assessment showed 37% of the visitors to the place of worship would use cars.
Speaking in favour of the application, Tamara Joseph, chair of Finchley Progressive Synagogue, claimed some people had sought to “whip up opposition to this application because they are hostile to Islam” and told councillors they had an opportunity “to send a clear message that all faiths are truly welcome here”.
London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden Anne Clarke also spoke in support, saying the Markhaz “deserves the warmth, the welcome, and the respect that all communities should feel in Barnet”.
Planning agent Richard Evans said using the venue as a concert hall or church would lead to “greater average vehicle trip rates” than the proposed place of worship. He also pointed out the site is in a town centre and has “the best public transport accessibility level”.
Richard told councillors a travel plan, cycle parking, and the extension of a controlled parking zone had been proposed to reduce the impact on neighbours.
After questioning the planning agent, committee chair Eva Greenspan proposed deferring the application to allow a parking and traffic management plan, a crowd control plan, noise management plan and events management plan to be brought to a future meeting.
Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors voted against, but Conservatives Melvin Cohen, Julian Teare, Reuben Thompstone, Golnar Bokaei and Thomas Smith voted in favour. Helene Richman, another Conservative, abstained.
Labour’s Tim Roberts claimed this was “setting a new precedent” and the committee “had never done that before”, but Cllr Cohen argued it was “not unusual for matters to come back to the committee”.
The application is expected to be brought back to the committee with the extra information on 30th November.
Subsequent to the meeting, Labour have slammed the decision as ‘Islamophobic’.
Cllr. Anne Clarke outlines her position in a column writing that Barnet’s Conservatives sewed division in the community and “this would simply not happen with any other religious group.”
The Markaz community is predominantly made up of a group of Shia Muslims who have lived in Barnet for thirty years. Many of them came to the UK in the 1980s as refugees fleeing Iraq. Labour emphasised that Christian organisations were not “required to provide a travel plan or an event management plan”.
Leader of the Barnet Labour Group, Cllr Barry Rawlings has promised to refer the handling of this process to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
He said: “The way Barnet Council has handled this application is shameful, with completely unnecessary delays and spurious requests for additional information. They have clearly treated this Muslim organisation in a different way to other religious organisations and most people will see this – and the disgraceful deferral of the application last night – for what it is, Islamophobia.
“The actions of both the Council and the Conservative administration make a mockery of the Council’s recent updated Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion policy, and its supposed zero-tolerance policy against racism.”
Barnet Liberal Democrats made similar remarks. Liberal Democrat councillor Jess Brayne, who sits on the Strategic Planning Committee said: “Deferring the application was a discriminatory political act and a cowardly one.
“The Conservatives seem not to want to be on record voting for or against the Islamic Centre.” Leader of the Barnet Liberal Democrats Group, Cllr Gabriel Rozen- berg, said that the community have been forced to “spend their limited resources on legal fees to secure a change of use of the Hippodrome and formalise their use of the site. They deserved to be welcomed by Barnet and it is shameful that they have had their efforts rebuffed on utterly spurious grounds.”
In response, Cllr Dan Thomas, Leader of the Council has said: “Cllr Rawlings’ accusations are nonsense and he knows it. This is a planning application and will be decided as all planning applications are, in the context of planning law.”
Adding that it is common for the Council to defer applications he continued, Cllr Rawlings decision to refer the matter to the EHRC is “political theatre” and it will “sow division that he knows doesn’t exist.”
In the wider community, citizens expressed their concern. A group called Barnet Chooses Love, have been canvassing on the issue. On their web- site, they provide information about the Markaz community as well as mobilising community groups to combat division after the ‘Golders Green Residents Environmental Group’ hired a lawyer, referred to as the ‘Mosque Buster’ who stated his aspirations to challenge planning requests for mosques in an online video. Since, interfaith leaders and citizens alike have all come together to support the planning application, with The Barnet Multi-Faith Forum and local Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders writing letters of support.
In response to Barnet Council’s most recent decision, Ed Marsh, chair of Barnet Citizens, said that they are “shocked and dismayed” and the Markaz community is “treated differently” from any other religious group. Planning should have been approved in order to prove that Barnet is a “home to all faith communities”.