Council officers say it is “unfortunate” the owners of a new mosque breached planning laws – but have recommended the controversial plans are approved anyway, Shy Society can reveal today.
The Zainabiya Welfare Foundation (ZWF) had been using a building on Bennet Road, in south Reading, as a mosque throughout 2017 before being informed by the local authority that its use was “unauthorised” and that they would fail to obtain planning permission. The Shia group subsequently purchased another building – over five miles away in north west Reading – which, by the group’s own admission, has been used as a mosque since 14th December 2017 despite having no planning permission to do so.
More than four months on, there remains no planning consent on Equity House yet the group’s website openly promotes prayer schedules, activities and events, and directions to the mosque and community centre.
In January, a new “part retrospective” planning application was submitted with Reading Borough Council stating it was “unfortunate” that the applicant commenced using the building in advance, adding “the applicant has been asked to respond to criticism that they started using the building without consideration of the planning process”.
ZWF responded by saying it was “not very experienced with this and don’t understand that full planning process” and that they “sincerely regretted” their actions.
“We had kept our planning agent informed at all stages of our progress in all matters including use of centre. From our other meeting and in hindsight I realise that we should have insisted on getting the planning in place before use of centre for which we regret but was more so because of lack of understanding of process,” the statement went on.
Outraged residents in this leafy suburb of Reading have lodged almost 750 objections including a 451-signature petition as they accuse the mosque owners of “arrogant presumption”.
In a report to the council’s planning committee, case officer Julie Williams admits: “With so many comments received (altogether there are about 740 objections including the petition) it is not possible in this report to record them individually.” She also describes the hundreds of comments as “well organised opposition” – and it is hostility which will be on display again today (SAT) as neighbours stage a peaceful protest outside the Post Office in School Road from 2pm.
Despite this, Reading Borough Council officers have advised councillors to approve the proposals at a planning committee meeting on Wednesday (April 25) stating that the Equalities Act 2010 “offers support” to the viewpoint that approval will “allow the requirements of a religious group to be met”.
Tilehurst residents Ken and Helen Thomas argue that the plans will “change the character” of the area and cause huge congestion problems, with an average of 50 worshippers expected to use it at peak times.
“We cannot allow something like this to dominate and take over our village and its inhabitants. It is definitely not the place to have a building of this nature,” they added.
Local resident Vincent Kent said: “I would be more trusting, but the mosques own website says that it is open for business; despite the planning not yet granted. It is arrogantly presumptuous of them to assume that planning will be granted and makes me wonder what else they have planned.
“When the planned mosque becomes too small for the numbers attending, and I suspect it will, what assurances do we as locals have that another bigger and more disruptive building is going to take its place?”
David and Yvette, also objecting to the plans, said: “We understand that the building is already being used illegally for the purpose of a mosque. We object to this, as it is a total disregard for planning laws.
“What action is the council taking regarding this? We are appalled that this total disregard for planning laws has been allowed to continue.”
And Mr G England, of Hildens Drive, added: “There are already a number of mosques in Reading and in some cases, it appears that planning guidelines have been ignored in their construction.
“Indeed, there are already large signs on the proposed site, which looks to me as if they are going ahead with plans before planning permission has been granted, is this indeed the thin end of the wedge, will the developers stick to any planning restrictions laid down in the future?”
Trustee of ZWF, Mumtaz Ali, said the building was a family community centre as well as a mosque and that it was open to the whole community including people of any religion.
SHY SOCIETY EDITORS’ COMMENT:
As Reading Borough Council prepare to grant permission to yet another mosque on Wednesday, serious questions must now be asked in the very highest echelons of government about the state of Britain’s planning system and whether it is still fit-for-purpose.
To get the legal jargon out of the way, a breach of planning control is defined in section 171A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 as “the carrying out of development without the required planning permission”.
On the government’s own website, it states that effective enforcement of planning controls is important to “maintain the integrity of the decision-making process” and to “help ensure that public acceptance of the decision-making process is maintained.”
When the Zainabiya Welfare Foundation breached planning guidelines for the first time in 2017, they were told in no uncertain terms that what they had been doing was “unauthorised” and that they had to find alternative premises. When they then purchased Equity House and contravened planning controls for a second time immediately after, a lack of understanding of the planning process simply cannot be used as a justifiable excuse. It is ludicrous to think otherwise. And, just to add insult to injury, as hundreds of locals raise legitimate fears over the detrimental impact this change of use will have on their village-like community, council officers have seemingly ignored these protestations to advise elected councillors to pass it anyway.
Just what, Shy Society ask, is the point of Britain’s planning system if it ignores repeated planning breaches and the material and widespread concerns of local communities? On this evidence, and the evidence of many more applications across the length and breadth of this country, our planning system is incompetent, redundant and corrupt to the core, lacking integrity at every sorry last turn.
We must fight this on a local level and we must fight this on a national level. You can support the campaign by sending this article, and our response to it, to local councillors, MPs, parish councillors, the planning committee at Reading Borough Council and figures in national government. Only by pressurising those overseeing this underhanded, shoddy mess can we ensure that a planning process fit-for-purpose is shaped which properly safeguards local communities and the genuine concerns raised within them.
Standing up for those without a voice in Britain
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