Barnet community leaders have reacted to news that the Golders Green Hippodrome has been sold, calling it "devastating and heart-breaking".

International "megachurch" Hillsong Church is buying the building after a longstanding planning dispute between owner Markaz El Tathgheef el-Eslami (MTE) and Barnet Council.

In July councillors deferred a decision over whether or not to rubber-stamp use of the Hippodrome as an Islamic community centre.

Reacting to the sale, Barnet Council said it had “worked closely” with the Islamic centre and advised it on planning procedures.

A spokesperson told the Ham&High: “We are grateful to the group for the contribution they made to the life of Golders Green, and in particular their active support for the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

"They have now chosen to move elsewhere, and we wish them all the best for the future.”

London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden Anne Clarke called the news “devastating and heartbreaking".

She said: “After such a long fight and so many delays, it’s no wonder that the community didn’t feel welcome in Barnet and decided to sell up. This should have been a straight-forward change of use from a church to a place of worship, instead it dragged on and on while Barnet Council continued to put up red tape.

“I am so lucky to have spent so much time at the Markaz, and was delighted to speak for their application at the planning committee meeting in July. The committee had everything they needed to make the decision and approve the application.

“Instead, they chose to defer and throw the community into further delay.

“I wish the Markaz every success in their new home, I can’t wait to visit. No one expects hate to win in Golders Green, London or anywhere else in this country, but I fear it did, thanks to Barnet Council.”

Earlier this year, lawyers for MTE alleged Barnet Council's treatment of their application had amounted to "religious discrimination", which the town hall has denied. The lawyers alleged the council had "made demands of the Markaz that it did not make of the previous owners, the El-Shaddai Church".

Barnet Council brought enforcement proceedings against MTE's use of the site in 2019, arguing that "use of the land as a cultural centre, not comprising use as a church, to hold concerts, conferences, drama and dance festivals" was in breach of the permission – but the owners appealed this decision

A public planning inquiry was due to take place in 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. Barnet advised MTE that a new application for change of use might prove a quicker solution. A decision on that application was never reached.

In May, the Hippodrome became a pop-up vaccination centre as part of an interfaith drive to promote the Covid-19 jab across communities, with faith leaders getting vaccinated themselves.

Rabbi Josh Levy, who has played a key role in interfaith relationships in Golders Green, said he is disappointed to hear of the sale.

The North Western Reform Synagogue rabbi said: “We have greatly valued the relationships we have built with the Markaz and its members over these past years.

“We are sorry that not everyone has welcomed them into the area in the way we would have liked, and are sad to lose a partner in the important work of interfaith dialogue in Golders Green.”

Ham & High: Pharmacist Aisha Noor vaccinates Eliahu Lopez at the Golders Green HippodromePharmacist Aisha Noor vaccinates Eliahu Lopez at the Golders Green Hippodrome (Image: Jonathan Goldberg)

Chair of Barnet Citizens Ed Marsh said: “This is a sad moment for the borough of Barnet and sends the wrong message about the type of warm, welcoming and inclusive place that Barnet is.

“From the beginning the Markaz have sought to use and preserve an iconic local landmark and have been met with a campaign of smears and lies driven by racism and Islamophobia."

He added: “The result of this has been a Muslim community who have made a great contribution to our borough for decades being driven out.”

However, spokesman for the Golders Green Residents Environment Group Alan Jacobs, which led the campaign against MTE's planning application, stressed the group's concern around traffic in the area.

He said “We are pleased that the future of the Hippodrome has been resolved and look forward to welcoming Hillsong Church to Golders Green.

“Opposition to the previous owners’ application was all about the seven day a week impact on congestion, parking and local amenity. Church use is restricted principally to a Sunday which Golders Green is better able to accommodate.”