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Founding father of India Dr Ambedkar 'not important enough' says Camden Council as it seeks to close museum

PUBLISHED: 17:57 24 September 2019 | UPDATED: 08:33 25 September 2019

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

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A Camden Council official has said one of India's founding fathers isn't significant enough in the UK to overturn planning rules on a Primrose Hill townhouse that was converted to a museum in his memory.

The Primrose Hill property where  Indian politician B.R Ambedkar’s stayed in the 1920s is subject to a planning inquiry. Picture: Sam VolpeThe Primrose Hill property where Indian politician B.R Ambedkar’s stayed in the 1920s is subject to a planning inquiry. Picture: Sam Volpe

The planning inquiry at the Crowndale Centre today heard that the council believes B R Ambedkar's stay in Primrose Hill was too short and that he wasn't well-known enough in Britain to be a person of wider interest.

According to a blue plaque on 10 King Henry's Road, he lived there between 1921 and 1922. He was described as a "god-like" figure by Steve Gasztowicz QC, representing the State of Maharashtra, which bought the house in 2015. It has since spent £3.1million turning it into a museum.

Dr Ambedkar is well known in India for raising the profile of the Dalit group in the caste system, and was supportive of women's rights.

During his life he wrote the constitution of India, his academic work provided the foundation for the opening of its central bank and he became known as one of the nation's founding fathers.

He lived in Primrose Hill while a student at the London School of Economics. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the museum during a visit in 2015, and Dr Ambedkar was voted the greatest ever Indian in a poll of 18million people in 2012, according to Mr Gasztowicz.

Camden Council has told the state that it didn't have planning permission to convert the townhouse into the museum and memorial. It previously contained two flats.

In her opening statement, Caroline Daly, representing Camden Council, said that in Camden's local plan every home lost through conversion or redevelopment "is a home that needs to be replaced".

She added that Dr Ambedkar's limited time didn't justify converting it into a museum.

India's High Commission applied for retrospective planning permission to convert the house into a museum in 2018. The council turned it down saying it would be an "unjustified" loss of residential floor space. When the museum stayed open, Camden issued an enforcement notice to try to close it. An appeal against Camden's original decision was then submitted to the planning inspectorate.

During questioning by Mr Gaztowicz that went on for more than an hour, Camden's conservation officer Nick Baxter said the building itself wasn't architecturally significant enough, and neither was B R Ambedkar in Britain.

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He said: "He was only in London for four years while he studied economics. It's unlikely he would have been considered for a blue plaque by English Heritage. He lived here for one year. His connection with the house is not significant enough.

"It is a standard Victorian townhouse. It's on Camden's local list as a positive contribution to the local area. But that doesn't make it an interesting enough building in itself."

In his written submission to the inquiry, Mr Baxter had also said that Dr Ambedkar wasn't of national importance.

He compared it with two other listed buildings in Camden, the Freud Museum in Maresfield Gardens and Erno Goldfinger's modernist house in Willow Road, saying the museum in King Henry's Road didn't have the same significance as either.

In response, Mr Gasztowicz said it was important to the 430,000 people of Indian origin in London, and more than a million in Britain. Prime minister Mr Modi has made it one of the sites of Indian pilgrimage in Britain.

When the original planning application was lodged, immediate neighbours of the museum raised fears about noise at night, and "buses and coaches" bringing people to visit the house.

But addressing inspector Keri Williams and the inquiry, Sally Roach - who lives over the road from the museum - said both she and her husband work from home, and haven't noticed any noise or buses.

She added: "When we visited it, we were astonished at what this man had achieved. If Camden Council can find a way to allow this to remain it would be wonderful. It's a fantastic addition to the neighbourhood."

Another supporter of the museum to address the inquiry this morning, Alex Sunshine, said it could cause a great affront to India if the council was to close the museum. He works in Maharashtra for several months a year with the charity Equal Community Foundation.

"I know that they would be very offended and it would be seen as a slight if the council insists it needs to return to residential usage," he said. "People know in India how important he is. He is revered and his birthday is a public holiday. When I have friends from India visiting, they all want to see Dr Ambedkar's house.

"There are widespread implications for Anglo-Indian relations, if this is turned down. There has been negative press coverage about this already in India."

The inquiry will continue in October.

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