Hippodrome owners accuse Barnet Council of Equality Act breach
- Credit: Max Von Hagen
Barnet Council has been accused of breaching the Equality Act in how it has dealt with a planning application from the Shia Muslim group based at the Golders Green Hippodrome.
Lawyers representing the Markaz El Tathgheef el-Eslami group (MTE) which has owned the Hippodrome since 2017, have written to the council setting out allegations of religious discrimination.
MTE operates the venue as a community centre and place of worship. Its members initially came to London after fleeing Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s.
It is not a mosque and MTE believes using the venue as an Islamic community centre should fall within the existing planning permission, given in 2007, which states: "To use building as a church to enrich community with schemes for children, unemployed, elderly etc. To hold concerts, conferences, drama and dance festivals."
Following disputes with the council, it applied in July 2020 to change this to: "Use as a Place of Worship (D1 use) and for ancillary community uses, public conferences and performances."
This came after Barnet took enforcement action against MTE's use of the site in 2019. A public planning inquiry had been set to take place during 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. The council advised MTE that a new application may be a quicker way of resolving the issue.
MTE's lawyers have now written to the council complaining that its delays dealing with the application – it still has not set a date for the planning committee to determine it – and general handling of the application have broken the law.
In their letter, MTE's lawyers write: “At every turn, 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.
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"It is inconceivable that such demands would have been made had the application been made by a community of a different faith.”
The lawyers said MTE had been treated differently because it was a "Muslim institution", and said the town hall had made "a number of unreasonable demands".
A campaign in support of MTE's right to use the venue has had support from community leaders of all faiths and none, and on May 27 a group gathered outside of the Hippodrome to hold a banner reading: "Set a date. Stop the hate."
Among those to back MTE are Bishop of Edmonton the Rev'd Rob Wickham, who said: "“Faith communities across Barnet provide much of the social glue that enables us all to thrive. This has been so prevalent over the pandemic, where many faith communities have stepped up and stepped out.
"The Markaz are such a community, whose service to the local community is well respected and well known. I stand with them, alongside other Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders across Barnet, inspired by God who is love. Together we stand in solidarity, united in serving the Barnet community.”
Paying tribute to Barnet's diverse community, Mike Freer MP added: "The Hippodrome has a rich past as both a concert and music venue before becoming a place of worship as a Church. Markaz have operated in the local area for many years before acquiring the site.
"They, like all faith organisations, are welcome. Attempts to use a planning application to divide our communities is reprehensible.”
An anonymous poster campaign has used inflammatory language, included incorrectly describing the plans as for a "mega-mosque" to drive opposition to MTE's use of the site.
During a public consultation as part of the planning process, up to March 31 there had been 1,519 comments made from members of the public about the plans.
Of those, 789 were objections and 739 were in favour.
MTE's solicitor Ifath Nawaz said the process "should have been straightforward", adding: “There is no good reason why such a simple procedure should have taken so long to resolve.
"I hope that Barnet Council will stop treating the Markaz in a different manner to how it has treated other faith communities and set a date to reach a decision within the next month.”
A Barnet Council spokesperson 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."
The town hall said it was aware of the issues MTE's lawyers had raised, and would be working with them to resolve them.