A public inquiry is set to take place into Preston City Council’s decision to grant permission for the three-storey place of worship on land alongside the Broughton roundabout, where the M6 and M55 motorways meet the A6.
The authority’s planning committee voted by a majority back in February to approve the striking building, the design of which was the winning entry in a prestigious international competition run by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The mosque itself is to have a maximum height of 12 metres, while an accompanying minaret will rise 30 metres into the air, sitting on elevated ground previously used as a compound during the construction of the Broughton bypass.
However, the development has divided public opinion - with more than 625 letters lodged in support of the scheme, but also over 425 objections. Concerns centred around its potential impact on traffic - as well as the scale and appearance of the building, which will be able to accommodate 248 prayer mats and associated worshippers.
Preston planning officers recommended that councillors on the committee give the go-ahead to the application, telling them at the meeting where the matter was discussed that the need for a mosque in the area “tipped the balance” in favour of approving it - in spite of the fact that it conflicted with two local planning policies.
The subsequent decision to do just that caused consternation amongst city councillors representing the Preston Rural East ward where the mosque would be built. One of them, Cllr Graham Jolliffe, wrote to the government requesting that the matter be ‘called in’ for further consideration.
That request, which it is understood was also made by another local politician, has now been accepted - meaning that a public inquiry will be held to reassess the application. A planning inspector will then make a recommendation to the Communities Secretary, Michael Gove, as to whether he should rubber stamp or overturn the original permission.
In a letter to Preston City Council from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities - which has been seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) - the authority has been advised that the Secretary of State is particularly interested in being informed about “the extent to which the proposed development is consistent with the development plan for the area”.
The city council says that it is “disappointed” by the decision to call in the application.
However, Cllr Jolliffe told the LDRS that it was a matter of restoring confidence in the planning process - which he said had been severely damaged amongst those who opposed the mosque in the proposed location.
“Even Preston City Council recognised that it was against national, Lancashire and Preston policy guidelines - so I’m very pleased that central government have acknowledged the strength of our argument and want to take a look at this.
“I’m not against the mosque in the right place, where there are good transport links and it is not going to cause disruption on a main artery in and out of the city - but my view is that this really is the wrong building in the wrong place and it is quite clearly an egregious breach of a variety of different planning rules.
“This is a recognition from central government that the concerns of a huge majority of the local people in Broughton - and in this ward - have been recognised and are being given due consideration.
“So many people said to me after the decision that they just couldn't understand it - so the faith in our planning process has been undermined. Maybe this can help to restore that.
"It’s of national importance that planning rules are followed,” Cllr Jolliffe added.
The committee meeting in February heard from a member of the Muslim community in the area who said that Muslim families moving from other parts of Preston "should not be deprived of a local place of worship for their religious and spiritual wellbeing".
Fatima Ismail also told committee members: "Some parents have moved there because of the newly-built houses and, for about three years they...have expressed concern about the lack of a place of worship where they can feel community and peace.
"We, the second-generation Muslim women, like to visit the mosque for our prayers, spirituality and mental health and wellbeing.
"Having this mosque in Broughton parish will not only provide a most-needed place of worship at a time when we all need faith, peace and guidance and something to give us hope, but also because the design of this mosque is actually unique and encompasses the history of this town," Mrs. Ismail said.
Planning officers said that that nod to Preston’s past - in the form of the building’s minaret having the appearance of a Victorian mill chimney - was something that weighed in its favour.
However, one of the main reasons for them reversing a previous recommendation for the application to be refused when it first came before the committee last July was that a plan had now been drawn up to ensure sufficient parking capacity for the most well-attended prayer services.
It was proposed that a booking system be set up for the 150-space car park and that 77 of the spaces should be reserved for people who have car-shared. Based on a minimum of two occupants per car, then during maximum attendance at the mosque, only 31 worshippers would have to access the site by means other than car.
Lancashire County Council highways officials also said that it was unlikely that the proposed mosque development would have a severe traffic impact on the local highway network. Double yellow lines are also proposed along the full length of D’Urton Lane from its junction with the through-route to the end of the cul -de-sac adjacent to the site.
The application nevertheless conflicted with a Central Lancashire-wide planning strategy designed to maintain a “hierarchy” of development sites and ensure that only “small-scale” building should be permitted on plots such as the one proposed.
The proposal was also at odds with Preston’s own local plan which seeks to direct development toward appropriate locations by protecting areas of “open countryside”, of which the application site is one.
However, planning officers said that in fulfilling an identified need for a place for a worship, the plans accorded with other elements of local policy.
The planning meeting heard that the applicant had identified 311 households "in the immediate local area" for which the proposed mosque would be their closest appropriate place of worship. Of those, while only 17 were to the north of the M55 - and only two in Broughton village - a total of 73 were within the borders of the wider Broughton parish.
Responding to the call in, Chris Hayward, director of development and housing at Preston City Council, said:
“The Secretary of State typically uses his powers sparingly. Very few applications are called-in every year and they normally relate to planning applications which are greater than local significance.
“We are therefore disappointed to be informed that the Secretary of State has called in the application for his own determination. We are currently awaiting further information from the Planning Inspectorate to assist with the process, which will be similar to an appeal.”
The LDRS attempted to contact the applicant, planning specialists Cassidy + Ashton - as well as Fatima Ismail - for comment on the latest development.
No date has yet been set for the inquiry, but statements of case and common ground must be prepared by the parties.
Anyone can comment on or, at the discretion of the appointed inspector, take part in an inquiry on a called-in planning application. Preston City Council will advise those who have already commented on the application that it has been called-in.