Preston 'motorway mosque' plan on hold after councillors say it's premature
Plans for a "landmark" mosque on the outskirts of Preston have been left in limbo after councillors demanded more detail about what the building would look like - and whether there is a need for it.
A plot close to the junction of the M55 and M6 in Broughton has been eyed for the proposed place of worship - which would hold up to 450 people - but a final decision on whether to grant outline permission for the development was deferred after almost two hours of debate at Preston town hall.
The design of the mosque is the subject of an international competition run by the Royal Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), with the organisation having previously invited "strong and bold" entries to create a structure that would become a "proud element of Preston’s skyscape for many years to come".
However, a winning design has yet to be announced - and that was one of several reasons Preston City Council planners advised members of the authority's cross-party planning committee to reject the proposal outright.
A meeting of the committee was told that the absence of a formal blueprint for the building - likely to be the equivalent of three storeys in height according to the competition organisers - meant that it was impossible to judge whether it would cause any harm to the setting of nearby Grade II-listed buildings, including St John the Baptist parish church and Broughton Church of England Primary School.
Members also heard that the site - at the western end of D'Urton Lane - lies in an area defined as open countryside, where development is usually restricted. They were further advised that a proposed 146-space car park could be inadequate.
However, the man leading the application rubbished the council's reasons for refusing the proposal.
Alban Cassidy, director of architecture and planning firm Cassidy + Ashton, noted that the mosque - to be built on an elevated piece of land previously used as a compound during work to build the Broughton bypass - would be 150 metres away from the nearest heritage assets.
He said that the outline nature of the application meant that heritage issues should be discussed at the next stage in the planning process and that unless there was "demonstrable harm" from the principle of the development, it must not be refused at this stage.
Mr. Cassidy also also pointed out that the council had previously drawn a distinction - when considering other applications - between land in the vicinity of the proposed mosque and its "unique characteristics" compared to the wider landscape in the area.
"The M55, the A6 [and] James Towers Way [the bypass] all dominate the setting and create a character that has no relationship to the countryside and is unique in Preston.
"Case law in planning is absolutely clear that there should be consistency in decision-making and therefore it is wholly unreasonable for the council to say this is not an approach they now take," Mr Cassidy added.
His questioning of the definition of the busy intersection as open countryside drew some sympathy from several committee members, including Cllr David Borrow, who said the authority had an "obligation...[in] recognising the needs of all communities to have places of worship. But he concluded that the application as it stood was "premature".
Cllr Sue Whittam said that the applicant should have withdrawn the plans when they learned that it was set to be refused.
"They were well aware...of the gaps in the evidence that they have provided here today. We don't know the scale, design or anything else relating to the competition. The competition does refer to it being an iconic building, able to be seen from everywhere - and that implies that it is going to be a large, stand-out building. But we need to have that information before us," Cllr Whittam said.
Cllr Maxwell Green said that the committee would be "flying somewhat blind" if it made a decision based on the little it knew about the proposed development so far.
"We are a massive multi-cultural city, it's something we promote and are very happy about - I don't think there is ever an issue with us having a new place of worship for whatever religion.
"The new site may compliment what is there already and that would be fantastic, but equally it could end up being completely the opposite - so I think we do need more evidence before we can make a full an true decision."
Head of development Natalie Beardsworth told members that conflict with local planning policies could be overcome in cases where a development was shown to meet a "local need"
"Perhaps if we had more detailed information on that, the proposal may then comply....perhaps there is more to consider with this application," Ms. Beardsworth said.
Committee member Cllr Yakub Patel said that there was a drift north amongst some of Preston's Asian community towards Broughton - and he added that the proximity of the proposed to mosque to a church would signify "the cultural diversity of Preston".
Former chair of the planning committee Javed Iqbal added: "Every mosque in Preston has been built [on previously-occupied ground] - a terrace house or converted from a pub or [somewhere like a] dentist. This is the first opportunity Preston will have to build a mosque on virgin ground from the ground upwards."
Acknowledgement that planning officers were, "strictly speaking", right to recommend refusal, he suggested an alliterative course: "I'm sure with negotiations we can come to an agreement that all sides are happy [with] and we'll come up with a building that will be a credit to Preston," Cllr Iqbal said.
Current committee chair Peter Moss said that officers' hands had been tied and that even the applicant had recognised that it was impossible to assess any harm to the herniate buildings nearby in the absence of a "finalised scheme"
However, he added: "Knowing the site, I'm not minded to agree that...nearby buildings will be threatened by the development."
Cllr Neil Darby requested "further information on deign and layout" and "more evidence of need for the building" - and proposed that the decision be deferred until those details were provided.
Mr. Cassidy indicated that he was prepared to accept the necessary time extension for determining the application that would be required as a result - and members voted to support deferral by seven votes to two, with one abstention.
After the meeting, Mr. Cassidy told the Lancashire Post: "We have noted the councillors' comments and are looking forward to addressing the issues raised."
A total of 625 letters of support have been lodged in connection with the plans, with 427 others objecting.
PARKING TO PRAY
Highways officers at Lancashire County Council made a late-stage objection to the mosque plans, outlining concern about a "potential shortfall" in car parking spaces given that worshippers were "most likely" to be travelling to the site individually in cars from destinations other than home. They warned that it could result in "overflow parking" on D'Urton Lane - which is not permitted in the cul-de-sac section of that road - and even on the Broughton bypass itself.
County Hall requested that a traffic management plan be agreed before any permission was granted, along with the submission of an "evidence-base[d] audit trail of car park requirements"
Preston Rural East ward councillor Ron Woollam told the meeting that the size of the car park was "not acceptable".
Alban Cassidy said that the applicant was now in "advanced talks" with the county council about using the nearby school car park to accommodate attendance at the mosque during Friday prayers - which would not clash with pick-up times for the children - while the school could use the mosque's car park during its own peak times and for events.