Graham Jolliffe, who represents Preston Rural East ward on Preston City Council, was speaking ahead of a public inquiry next week which will be key to determining whether the historic place of worship ever comes off the drawing board.
His comments follow the emergence of an anonymous website – set up to criticize the proposal – which mosque supporters have called “offensive”.
The City Council’s Planning Committee gave the green light in February to what would be known as the Brick Veil Mosque, which had been proposed for prominent land overlooking the Broughton roundabout – where the A6, M6 and M55 all join on the outskirts of town.
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However, Cllr Jolliffe and Wyre and Preston North MP Ben Wallace made separate requests to then Leveling Secretary Michael Gove to ‘call’ the request – which split the local opinion – either to approve its approval or to cancel it. .
Mr Wallace told the Lancashire Post that the resulting investigation, which begins next Tuesday, “should not be a cause for friction within the local community”.
An independent town planning inspector will preside over the proceedings before making a recommendation to Mr Gove’s successor on whether or not to allow the 12m high building and its 30m high minaret.
But days from the start of that process, a group of friends set up to support the mosque called for more ‘respectful and transparent’ discussions of the plans after a website emerged setting out a series of outright objections. .
The site – which has been given an identical appearance to another promoting the facility – also makes unsubstantiated claims about the decision-making process within the planning system to date.
Broughton Parish Council – which has opposed the mosque since it was first evoked – quickly distanced itself from the website.
Authority chair Pat Hastings told the Post she was also concerned it “could affect the investigation.”
“We informed the inspector and the claimant that it had nothing to do with us,” Cllr Hastings added.
The site appears intended to mimic – and even poke fun at – aspects of the mosque’s own web presence, featuring fictitious profiles of individuals identified as “Jameel Policeman” and “Ammar Scout”, apparently as a means of wondering if well-regarded residents support the mosque. actually live in Broughton.
Cllr Jolliffe, who had not seen the site when he spoke to the Post, echoed the call for respect from Friends of the Broughton Mosque ahead of and during the detailed debate that will take place as part of the inquiry at Preston Town Hall.
The city council received what it described as “a number of representations…which were racist in nature” ahead of its first review of the application last year. They were dismissed as both inappropriate and immaterial planning considerations.
“From the point of view of the people I spoke to, it was never about anything other than [that] it’s just not the right place to have this building,” said Cllr Jolliffe.
“The whole point of it all has to be a matter of planning – is building an acceptable environment [one] have on this site? And it’s basically a very simple question.
“Whether it was a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque, a Christian church – or even a new hospital – it wouldn’t really matter.
“Planning considerations, in terms of traffic flow and all that kind of stuff, can only be decided when planning [terms] – and it has nothing to do with the religion of the people who will be using the building.
“When you get to the heart of the matter [the need for a mosque], that’s when it’s inevitable to start categorizing people. But at the end of the day, it’s always about the impact on travel, it’s not about who is traveling.
“[To] people who want to cause trouble, on either side, that’s just not acceptable. But there are also some [people who] have legitimate opinions but are afraid to say anything because they think they will be stained by this racist paintbrush,” Cllr Jolliffe said.
The issue of the catchment area for the proposed mosque proved contentious when the city council’s planning committee discussed the application earlier this year. That meeting heard that the applicant had identified 311 households “in the immediate local area” for whom the proposed building would be their closest aligned place of worship.
Of these, while only 17 were north of the M55 – and just two in the village of Broughton – a total of 73 were within the boundaries of the wider parish of Broughton.
Members of the committee approved the proposal by a majority, backing a recommendation by Preston City Council planning officers to greenlight the plans on the basis that they would ensure communities ‘have sufficient facilities there where they are needed”. – and despite the fact that the proposal was contrary to some other aspects of Lancashire local and central planning policy.
This contrasts with the recommendation made during the committee’s first assessment of the application last July, when members were told they would have to decline it due to concerns about the adequacy of parking arrangements and in the absence of a detailed design.
Councilors opted instead to postpone their decision and, when the matter came back before them in February, the plan for the building had been finalized – following the result of a Royal Institute of British Architects competition to design it – and a detailed parking plan had been drawn up.
Cllr Jolliffe says it’s the complicated history of the app that may have caused confusion – and consternation – among some residents. That’s something he hopes next week’s investigation will help solve.
“I think it will be a good process because it will hopefully clear things up once and for all.
“The planning shouldn’t be so hard that no one can figure out what was done and why – and I think that’s where it really went wrong.
“I completely understand that the Muslim community wants a beautiful building to pray in – it is a universal goal of any religious community. I just don’t think this is the place to put it.
“But we don’t want any sort of lingering bitterness after that. That’s why I was keen for him to be called in to resolve this kind of feeling,’ said Cllr Jolliffe, who added that he sympathized with the difficulty of the task faced by City Council planning officers. on this complex request and others.
Meanwhile, Ben Wallace told the Post: ‘I have asked the Secretary of State to look into this case as the proposals in the application are contrary to the policies set out in Preston’s local plan – in particular that the site was not assigned to development and was designated in the middle of the countryside to protect it.
“It is against these policies that all planning applications must be considered. The Town Planning Inspectorate is organizing a public inquiry next week and I encourage all interested parties to engage in this process to ensure that all opinions can be taken into account.
‘Demand will be determined on a planning basis and should not be a cause of friction within the local community,’ Mr Wallace said.
The website set up in opposition to the Brick Veil Mosque suggests it is a ‘misplaced project for the faithful of Preston, forced upon the community of Broughton’ – and claims that an expensive public relations firm to London was hired by the mosque’s backers “to manipulate the media and public opinion”.
The Post had no contact with a public relations firm regarding the proposed mosque until this week, when a statement was posted on the anonymous website.
Friends of the Broughton Mosque claim the site includes “false and potentially defamatory content”.
They add: “We fully understand that there are many legitimate opinions on the proposal. Hundreds of people have written to Preston City Council and the Planning Inspectorate both in favor and against the plans.
“However, in the interest of good community relations, we urge everyone involved in the discussions to refrain from anonymous attacks and to speak up in a professional and respectful manner.
“We believe that some of the anonymous website content falls well below these values.”
Consultant urologist Ahsanul Haq said he had spoken publicly in favor of the mosque – and should be able to.
“I think it’s a great project that will benefit the whole community. This offensive website seems to imply that I don’t live in the area and [that] what I have to say about the proposal is irrelevant.
“I can assure you that I live close to the site – and having spent much of my career providing medical care to local people, there is nothing wrong with me expressing my honest opinion on this development and the benefits that I think it will bring,” Mr. Haq said.
More than 625 letters of support were sent to the city council supporting the mosque project, while more than 425 people filed objections.
The survey begins Tuesday, August 2 at 10 a.m. – and a public notice advising of the event says it will be broadcast live. It should last between four and six days.