Council may face discrimination legal case from Golders Green Islamic Centre

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Council may face discrimination legal case from Golders Green Islamic Centre

Lawyers representing the Markaz community wrote to Barnet's leaders warning of possible 'unlawful religious discrimination' regarding the handling of its planning application

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Golders Green Hippodrome with a banner above the entrance describing its new owners
Golders Green Hippodrome with a banner above the entrance describing its new owners

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.

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