Barnet Council has been accused of breaking equality law in the way it handled a planning request from the Shia Muslim group based at Golders Green racetrack.
Lawyers representing the Markaz El Tathgheef el-Eslami (MTE) group, which has owned the racetrack since 2017, wrote to the council exposing allegations of religious discrimination.
MTE operates the place as a community center 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 that the use of the site as an Islamic community center should fall under the existing building permit, given in 2007, which states: “Use the building as a church to enrich the community with programs for them. children, the unemployed, the elderly, etc. Organize concerts, conferences, theater and dance festivals. “
Following disputes with the council, he asked in July 2020 to change this to: “Use as a place of worship (use D1) and for auxiliary community uses, public lectures and performances”.
It came after Barnet took coercive action against MTE’s use of the site in 2019. A planning public inquiry was due to take place in 2020, but has been delayed due to the pandemic. The board informed MTE that a new request might be a faster way to resolve the issue.
Lawyers for MTE have now written to the board complaining that its delays in processing the request – it still has not set a date for the planning committee to determine – and that the general processing of the request has violated the law.
In their letter, MTE’s lawyers write: “At every turn, the council has obscured, delayed the process and made demands on the Markaz that it did not address to the previous owners, the El-Shaddai Church.
“It is inconceivable that such requests would have been made if the request had been made by a different faith community.”
Lawyers said MTE was treated differently because it was a “Muslim institution”, and said the town hall made “a number of unreasonable requests”.
A campaign for MTE’s right to use the site received support from community leaders of all faiths and none, and on May 27 a group gathered outside the racetrack to hold a banner on which read, “Set a date. Stop the hate.”
The Bishop of Edmonton, the Reverend Rob Wickham, said: “The religious communities of Barnet provide much of the social glue that allows us all to prosper. communities have stepped up and gone out.
“The Markaz are such a community, whose service to the local community is well respected and well known. I stand by their side, alongside other Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Barnet, inspired by God who is love. Together, we are united, united in the service of the Barnet community.
Paying tribute to Barnet’s diverse community, MP Mike Freer added: “The racecourse has a rich history as a concert and music venue before becoming a place of worship as a church. Markaz operated in the region for many years before acquiring the site.
“Like all faith-based organizations, they are welcome. Attempts to use a planning app to divide our communities are reprehensible.”
An anonymous poster campaign used inflammatory language, including falsely describing the “mega-mosque” plans to arouse opposition to MTE’s use of the site.
In a public consultation as part of the planning process, up to March 31, 1,519 comments were made by members of the public about the plans.
Of that number, 789 were objections and 739 were in favor.
MTE’s attorney, Ifath Nawaz, said the process “should have been straightforward,” adding: “There is no good reason why such a straightforward procedure should have taken so long to resolve.
“I hope the Barnet Council will stop treating the Markaz in a different way from how it has treated other religious communities and set a date to make a decision in the next month.
A spokesperson for the Barnet Council said: “We are proud of the strong religious communities that live at Barnet and we all support in a culture of harmony and respect. The board worked closely with the candidate throughout the planning process.
“Planning requests are always assessed fairly and on their individual merits, and our planning team is currently reviewing this request before it goes to committee.”
The town hall said it was aware of the issues raised by MTE’s lawyers and would work with them to resolve them.