Council planners 'should embrace faith groups'

30 October 2015

FAITH AND PLACE NETWORK

"Greater understanding needed": Dr Andrew Rogers speaks at the launch of the report, at the House of Commons, a fortnight ago

"Greater understanding needed": Dr Andrew Rogers speaks at the launch of the report, at the House of Commons, a fortnight ago

STUDENTS training to become accredited planners should be taught how faith groups use spaces, a new report from academics at the University of Roehampton in London and Cardiff University says.

The recommendation is one of 15 in the Faith and Place network’s policy briefing Faith Groups and the Planning System, published on 16 October. The recommendations are designed to “improve relations between religious groups and the local government planning system”.

The report also suggests that local auth­orities review data on planning appli­cations to determine whether planning appli­cations from faith groups are more likely than other applications to be rejected; and for faith groups to play a more active role in the development of Local Plans.

It also recommends that “section 106 funding” — money local authorities receive from developers towards the costs of provid­ing community and social infra­structure needed as a result of new developments — could be used for the “creation of buildings suitable for use as places of worship”.

Dr Andrew Rogers, Principal Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Roehampton’s department of humanities, and Dr Richard Gale, Lecturer in Human Geo­graphy at Cardiff University, spent a year researching the interaction between faith com­­­munities and the planning system for the Faith and Place Network, which says that it is “bringing people together to inform faith, place and planning”.

“There are challenges in our briefing for both faith groups and for the planning sector,” Dr Rogers said. “Ultimately, both sides need a greater understanding of each other if the growing religious communities in our cities are to thrive and be able to worship with dignity.

“We have evidence of churches and other faith groups resorting to industrial estates and retail parks to establish a place of worship. Clearly this isn’t ideal for them, and it rarely accords with the wishes of councillors who want to encourage business growth.”

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The difficulties that some faith commun­ities have with the planning system is epit­omised by the Dudley Mosque saga. On Wednesday, the Court of Appeal was due to hear arguments in the long-running legal dispute between Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council and the Dudley Mosque Association (DMA).

The dispute goes back to 1997 when the DMA entered into the first in a series of land-swap agreements with the council. The council built the Dudley Southern Bypass on land that the DMA had acquired to build a mosque, and in return gave the DMA other council-owned land.

This was the subject of a further land-swap deal in 2003, but the agreement contained a covenant saying that the land would revert to the council if building work on the mosque wasn’t completed within five years.

The council’s planners rejected an application for outline planning permission for a mosque. This was overturned on appeal — a decision later upheld by the High Court; but the delays caused by the legal wrangling had pushed the scheme beyond the deadline in the covenant; and the council sought to buy back the lease amid a growing controversy about the proposed mosque, fuelled by frequent marches and protests by far-right groups such as the English Defence League and Britain First.

In 2011, the High Court said that the DMA must give the land back to Dudley Council; and it is this decision that was due to be reviewed by the Court of Appeal this week.

In the mean time, the town planners approved revised plans for the mosque last November; but building work cannot begin until the Court of Appeal decides whether or not the DMA can retain control of the land.

“This report . . . highlights the challenges faced by a diverse and growing number of faith communities seeking places for wor­ship,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said.

“The challenges are particularly acute for mig­rant faith communities, for whom wor­ship­­ping in their own tradition both supports com­­munity life and affirms identity. We must heed the strong biblical imperative for us to welcome the stranger, and to treat them and love them like ourselves.

“I am pleased that the Faith and Place Network is advocating better understanding across those groups for whom this is a key issue,” Archbishop Welby said.

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