Barnet Council could face legal action over alleged “unlawful religious discrimination”, lawyers acting for an Islamic Centre in Golders Green have claimed.
Lawyers representing the Markaz El Tathgheef el-Eslami (the Markaz), a Shia Muslim community based in the Golders Green Hippodrome, wrote to the Conservative led Council last week warning of possible legal action regarding its handling of a planning application to change the use of the building from a church to a “place of worship”. The letter, sent to Barnet Council’s planning department, set out claims that its conduct had contravened the 2010 Equality Act.
It was sent just days before the publication of a wider independent review into anti-Muslim discrimination within the Conservative Party, led by Professor Swaran Singh which drew attention to the prevalence of Islamophobia within the party at local levels.
The publication of the Singh report is likely to increase the scrutiny on Barnet’s Conservative run Council regarding its inexplicable delays in resolving such a straightforward application.
“At every turn”, however, “the council has obfuscated, delayed the process and made demands of the Markaz that it did not make of the previous owners, the El-Shaddai Church,” wrote the lawyers. It is “inconceivable”, they argued, “that such demands would have been made had the application been made by a community of a different faith…. The Markaz has been treated differently because it is a Muslim institution and one which has, sadly, been on the receiving end of unprecedented levels of objection.”
A spokesperson for Barnet Council said: “We take pride in the strong faith communities that call Barnet home and support all in a culture of harmony and respect. The council has been working closely with the applicant throughout the planning process. Planning applications are always assessed fairly, and on their individual merits, and our planning team is currently considering this application before it is brought to committee. It is not possible for us to comment in detail on a live planning application but we are aware of the concerns raised by the applicant. We are in the process of reviewing the issues they have raised and will be working with the applicant to get these resolved.”
The council has been accused of making a number of unreasonable demands of the centre – such as demanding it funds expensive parking schemes – that it did not make of previous occupants. “The council’s actions appear to be a deliberate attempt to delay and ultimately “make the problem go away” by discouraging the application, its lawyers claim. “There is no good reason why such a simple procedure should have taken so long to resolve.
The Markaz, a community comprised largely of Iraqi Shia refugees who fled the Saddam Hussein regime and which has been based in the London Borough of Barnet since the 1990s, bought the Hippodrome and moved into it in 2017.
The building, historically home to the BBC Concert Orchestra had been in use as a church since 2007.
In November 2019, however, the Council issued an enforcement notice alleging that the Markaz was breaching the conditions of the building’s use.
In response, the Markaz applied to change the use of the building, which should have been a straightforward procedure, given that it didn’t involve any building work or substantive operational changes.
A spokesperson for local residents said: “This is a complex planning application which would see significant intensification of the use of the Hippodrome with up to 3,000 attendees between the hours of 8.00am and 11.30pm, 365 days a year. As we have already seen, the impact on the local environment, particularly traffic and parking, would be immense. Barnet’s Planning Officers have dealt with this application with sensitivity and I am sure that they and Barnet’s Planning Committee will continue to focus solely on the relevant planning issues rather than be swayed by threats of litigation by Markaz”.
But those figures were challenged by a spokesman for the project, who said: “The highest ever attendance at the Markaz is capped at 1400 people maximum which occurs very rarely and is well below the Hippodrome’s capacity. Regular attendance is around 150. It is important that discourse around the Markaz maintains at least a passing relationship with reality but the figures quoted here do not.”
The planning application has been supported in the past by some Jewish organisations.
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.