Cllr Andrew Wood is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council and a councillor for Canary Wharf Ward.
What should the relationship be between religion and government in the UK especially at a local level? In Tower Hamlets, this is a live issue as the Council is helping some religious groups with opportunities at the expense of the wider community.
Tower Hamlets Council last year agreed to lease some land it owns to a mosque group; the site is currently occupied by portacabins used as a mosque. The mosque group sought a 99-year lease in order to allow the construction of a permanent mosque on the site. The lease is for £402,250, even though the Council value the site at £1.2 million. As the site is four minutes’ walk to a DLR station and twenty minute’s walk to Canary Wharf, it may be worth much more.
When this decision went to the Cabinet of Tower Hamlets Council, I asked how many homes could be built on the site instead of a mosque. (The land is currently held for housing purposes.) The answer was sixteen homes. The Council has its own residential development company and a target for building 2,000 Council homes. I also asked how many homes could be built with a community centre or mosque built on the ground floor and homes above it as a compromise, to which the answer was twelve homes. So why was this not done? Well, the mosque wanted a bigger facility which meant that only four homes could be built above the site and this was not economic.
As a result of this decision, the Council is foregoing either a large sum of money or sixteen affordable homes which won’t now be built on Council owned land. It fails both the value for money test and the needs of 19,000 people on the housing waiting list.
This is a common occurrence in Tower Hamlets. Mellish Street in my ward, Canary Wharf, has a similar set of council owned portacabins mainly used as a mosque. The Council propose to build a new free-standing ‘community centre’ for the mosque group in the car park, then knock down the portacabins to build new housing. The scheme originally proposed to build a community centre at the ground floor with new housing above it, but that proposal disappeared even though it could have delivered more housing. The site will only deliver 35 per cent affordable housing, despite the land being publicly owned. It should, therefore, be delivering 50 per cent affordable housing according to the Council’s own policies, but the suspicion must be that the cost of building the mosque means that the site can only deliver 35 per cent affordable homes.
Another example is Turin Street, where council officers agreed in late 2016 to convert a council building into homeless accommodation. The decision was suspended, as a local mosque group wanted to use it as temporary space while their own mosque was rebuilt. But that temporary use has now been extended to at least August 2019. In places like Blackwall Reach and the Burdett estate, new large purpose-built mosques have been appearing on what used to be publicly owned land. It is not entirely clear who paid for them, but the suspicion is that the cost was borne in part by the public through a reduction in the delivery of new affordable homes.
Why would the Council agree to this? It is because in the battle between Lutfur Rahman and mainstream Labour, being able to deliver prayer space is perceived to be a vote winner. If you visit the website of the Lansbury mosque group, you will see pictures of Labour (and only Labour) politicians on the site. They know very well who to thank for this generous gesture by the Mayor. This article was in fact delayed by a by-election in Lansbury on the 7th February, won by Labour.
Is this activity not illegal? When I asked, the Divisional Director of Legal Services at Tower Hamlets Council confirmed that there is no national legislation or guidance that restricts a local authority from disposing of property for faith use. Only in the USA has the “separation of church and state” been established as a legal principle, thanks to Thomas Jefferson.
But what we urgently need is some national guidance on this matter. Can publicly owned land be used for faith purposes? Can land be disposed of at below market value to faith groups? Can Councils or housing associations build buildings whose main use is for faith use? Does owning a lease on a community space entitle you to the delivery of a purpose-built mosque as has happened at Blackwall Reach and Burdett Estate? What rules then apply? Can they have segregated male and female entrances as has happened briefly at Mellish Street? All of this is unclear, allowing local councils to decide for themselves, but it also allows politicians to make politically expedient decisions on a subject which should not be politicised. And there is increasing evidence that the Muslim community are opposed to the politicisation of their prayer space; they do not like their religious facilities being used for political advantage.
Muslims need places to pray. Local government should be assisting them and any other groups that need help in finding space, whether that is for ballet lessons or for Muslim prayer. The National Planning Policy Framework paragraph 92 does say local planning authorities should “plan positively for the provision and use of shared spaces, community facilities (such as ….. places of worship)”, but that does not mean that local government should be supplying that space for only one group. They should instead be providing truly multi-purpose community space which can be used for judo on a Tuesday night, Jumu’ah prayer on a Friday, tango lessons on a Saturday, and Christian prayer on a Sunday, as already happens locally.
We also need to consider the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, and look at having a stricter separation between church and state, at least at the local level.