Thursday, 11 March 2010

Movement on the Mosque

Wednesday 10th March

An extraordinary meeting of Surrey Heath Borough Council was convened last night in order to consider the application of the new Mosque building in Camberley.
Typically such matters are heard at the Council's planning committee, but owing to an admin issue it was determined that the entire membership be convened to hear and debate the planning issues.

I consider myself to be a planning professional. I read for a planning based degree, have worked for 15 years in a planning directed business and more recently have been a member of the County Council Planning Committee. As such I'm of the opinion that I'm fairly well disposed to discuss the subject of town and country planning.

However, last night's meeting, like so many planning meetings across the country and in spite of the Mayor Cllr Craig Fennell ably attempting to keep order, teetered on the brink of chaos as speakers and members alike confused planning matters with non-planning matters.

Personally, and contentious and emotional as the subject of the new mosque had become, I divorced the two and looked upon the application with a coldly professional eye. Given the fact that the conservation area policy is particularly restrictive it is the case that given the design was held to be inappropriate for the conservation area, the only sustainable argument that could support last night's mosque application - and therefore allow the committee to go against the officer recommendation and permit the new mosque building - would be if an overwhelming community need for the new building could be established. It is when these conditions and these conditions alone exist that a building such as the proposed new mosque could have been permitted.

Evidence was presented to support that case, but to my mind it wasn't enough. I was sympathetic to the fact that the mosque congregation needed better facilities, but I couldn't get past the numbers. A community need in my opinion should benefit the entire community, rather than a very small element of it, and I didn't feel that this was represented last night.

Thus, the elements of detail - height, scale, parking and amenity - while relevant planning considerations became somewhat inappropriate. If the new mosque building didn't meet the need case, then consideration of the details was then unnecessary.

This didn't stop a number of my colleagues discussing irrelevant issues such as financial backing, but towards the end of the session the vote was taken overwhelmingly in favour of a refusal.

In my view, this was the correct decision.

Interestingly, as I know from experience a planning refusal is seldom the end of the story. Professionally, I use planning refusals as a blueprint against which I temper our fresh applications for the better and I feel certain that the mosque committee will take this opportunity to rework their proposals.

It will take a proposal that either establishes need or that which is more sympathetically designed to be successful. And frankly, if the next proposal more readily emulates that which is already contained within the conservation area, then there is no planning reason it should not be supported.

We shall see.

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