Preston Brick Veil Mosque: 'This is about planning, not religion', say politicians amid tensions over website ahead of planning inquiry

A councillor who asked the government to have the final say over whether a major new mosque can be built alongside one of Preston's busiest road junctions says he hopes that there will be no “lingering bitterness” between those on either side of the debate - whichever way the decision goes.

Thursday, 28th July 2022, 5:11 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th July 2022, 5:58 pm

Graham Jolliffe, who represents the 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 landmark place of worship ever gets off the drawing board.

His comments came following the emergence of an anonymous website - set up to criticise the proposal - which those backing the mosque have branded “offensive”.

The city council’s planning committee gave the green light back in February to what would be known as the Brick Veil Mosque, which had been proposed for a prominent plot overlooking the Broughton roundabout - where the A6, M6 and M55 all meet on the outskirts of the city.

How the landmark Brick Veil Mosque would look if it were built at the Broughton roundabout (image: RIBA)

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However, Cllr Jolliffe and Wyre and Preston North MP Ben Wallace made separate requests to the then Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove for him to “call in” the application - which has divided local opinion - in order either to rubber stamp its approval or overturn it.

Mr. Wallace has told the Lancashire Post that the resultant inquiry, which begins next Tuesday, “should not be a cause for friction within the local community”.

An independent planning inspector will chair the proceedings before making a recommendation to Mr. Gove's successor about whether or not to permit the 12-metre tall building and its 30-metre high minaret.

The proposed plot is an elevated patch of ground that was previously used as a compound during construction of the Broughton Bypass over five years ago (image: RIBA)

But with just days to go before that process was due to begin, a friends group established in support of the mosque called for more “respectful and transparent” discussions over the plans after a website appeared setting out a series of sharply-worded objections.

The site - which has been given an identical appearance to another which is promoting the facility - also makes unsubstantiated allegations about the decision-making process within the planning system to date.

Broughton Parish Council - which has opposed the mosque since it was first mooted - quickly distanced itself from the website.

The authority’s chair, Pat Hastings, told the Post that she was also concerned that it “might affect the inquiry”.

Cllr Graham Jolliffe says that it would not matter if a church, a synagogue or even a hospital were being proposed for the Broughton roundabout - and that it's the suitablility of the site for the building that is the issue

“We have informed the inspector and the applicant that it was nothing to do with us,” Cllr Hastings added.

The site appears intended to mimic - and even mock - aspects of the mosque’s own web presence, featuring fictional profiles of individuals identified as “Jameel Policeman” and “Ammar Scout”, seemingly as a vehicle to question whether well-regarded residents backing the mosque actually live in Broughton.

Cllr Jolliffe, who had not seen the site when he spoke to the Post, echoed the Friends of Broughton Mosque’s call for respect both before and during the detailed debate that will be had 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” prior to its first consideration of the application last year. They were discounted as being both inappropriate and not material planning considerations.

Wyre and Preston North MP Ben Wallace does not want next week's public inquiry to cause any "friction" locally

“From the perspective of the people that I've spoken to, it’s never been about anything other than [that] this just isn't the right place to have that building,” Cllr Jolliffe said.

“The whole point of this has got to be about planning - is that building an acceptable [one] to have on that site? And that’s fundamentally a very simple question.

“Whether it was as Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque, a Christian church - or even a new hospital - it wouldn’t really matter.

“The planning considerations, in terms of the traffic flow and all that kind of stuff, can only be decided on planning [terms] - and that has nothing to do with what religion the people are who will be using the building.

“When you get into the nitty gritty of [the need for a mosque], that’s when it's unavoidable that you have to start categorising people. But at the end of the day, that’s still about travel impact, it's not about who’s travelling.

“[To] the people who want to cause trouble, from either side, it’s just not acceptable. But also there are a few [people who] have got legitimate views, but are scared to say anything because they think they will be tarred with that racist brush,” 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 which the proposed building would be their closest aligned 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.

Committee members approved the proposal by a majority, supporting a recommendation by Preston City Council planning officers to give the go-ahead to the plans on the basis that they would ensure that communities “have sufficient facilities where there is a need” for them. - and in spite of the fact that the proposal was contrary to some other aspects of local and Central Lancashire-wide planning policy.

That was in contrast to the recommendation made when the committee first assessed the application last July, when members were told that they should refuse it over concerns about the adequacy of the car parking arrangements and in the absence of a detailed design.

Councillors instead opted to defer their decision and, when the matter came back before them this February, the blueprint for the building had been finalised - following the outcome of a Royal Institute of British Architects competition to design it - and a detailed car parking plan had been drawn up.

Cllr Jolliffe says that is the complicated history of the application which may have caused confusion - and consternation - amongst some residents. That is something which he hopes next week’s inquiry will help resolve.

“I believe it will be a good process, because it will hopefully clarify matters once and for all.

“Planning shouldn't be so difficult that nobody can understand what has been done and why - and I think that’s where this has really come a bit of a cropper.

“I absolutely understand that the Muslim community want a beautiful building to worship in - it’s a universal goal of any religious community. I just think it’s not the place to put it.

“But we don't want any kind of lingering bitterness after this. That's why I was keen for it to be called in to resolve that kind of feeling,” said Cllr Jolliffe, who added that he sympathised with the difficulty of the task faced by city council planning officers on this and other complex applications.

Meanwhile, Ben Wallace told the Post: “I asked the Secretary of State to consider this case as the proposals within the application are contrary to the policies set out in Preston’s local plan - specifically that the site has not been allocated for development and has been designated as open countryside to protect it.

“It is against these policies that all planning applications should be considered. The Planning Inspectorate is holding a public inquiry next week and I would encourage all interested parties to engage with that process to ensure all opinions can be taken into account.

“The application will be determined on planning grounds and should not be a cause for friction within the local community,” Mr. Wallace said.

The website set up in opposition to the Brick Veil Mosque suggests that it is an “inappropriately situated project for Preston worshippers, being forced on the Broughton community” - and claims that an expensive, London PR firm has been hired by the mosque’s backers “to manipulate the media and public opinion”.

The Post has had no contact with any PR firm regarding the proposed mosque until this week, when a statement was issued about the anonymous website.

The Friends of Broughton Mosque say that the site includes “false and potentially defamatory content”.

They add: “We completely understand that there are many legitimate views about the proposal. Hundreds of people have written to Preston City Council and the Planning Inspectorate both in favour and against the plans.

“However, in the interests of good community relations, we urge everyone involved in discussions to refrain from anonymous attacks and make their case in a professional and respectful way.

“We believe some of the content on the anonymous website falls far short of those values.”

Consultant urologist Ahsanul Haq said that he had spoken publicly in support of the mosque - and should be able to do so.

“I think it is a great project which will benefit the whole community. This offensive website seems to imply that I do not live in the area and [that] what I have to say about the proposal is not relevant.

“I can assure you I live close to the site - and having spent much of my career providing medical treatment to local people, there is nothing wrong with me expressing my honest opinion about this development and the benefits I believe it will bring,” Mr. Haq said.

More than 625 letters of support had been sent to the city council backing the mosque plan, while over 425 people lodged objections.

The inquiry begins on Tuesday 2nd August at 10am - and a public notice advising of the event says that it will be live-streamed. It is scheduled to last for between four and six days.