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Faith Buildings

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kerry McCarthy.)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this important subject, which has been a pressing one for people in my constituency for many years. I have pursued it through a number of different avenues, so it was with a sense of frustration that I sought this Adjournment debate. I did so because of the troubling difficulties in obtaining faith buildings in Northampton to serve our multi-faith community. This is an issue not only for Northampton, because faith communities in other parts of the country face similar difficulties in accessing sites and, in particular, obtaining planning consent. A simple search on the internet reveals a host of different disputes about planning applications for mosques, temples and a variety of other faith buildings.

In some areas, lessons have been learned and there is some good practice. For example, in Birmingham there are proposals for needs assessments of faith communities in the city as part of regeneration work, and one borough in London has a unit to help faith communities to resolve their different issues in getting access to buildings in which to worship. However, I must tell the House that in Northampton faith communities have faced continuing difficulties in obtaining buildings in which to worship, despite the growth of those communities and the constructive role that they have played in our town for a good number of years.

The town contains a substantial and extremely diverse Muslim community; people from different parts of the world have settled in the town and played an enormously supportive and constructive role. That community is undertaking its own census, but it is thought that the population is about 5,000 strong and it is hemmed in to two small house mosques—a converted and listed house, which I believe was the town’s first mosque, and a converted service station. Although that is being redeveloped in a constructive way, with classrooms and different community facilities, and it is doing a good job, it remains at heart just a service station. It is located on quite a busy street and good relations have been built up with the neighbours, but the parking and street access is not ideal.

The town also contains two substantial and successful Hindu communities. One has a planning application pending on a site for a multi-purpose building with community uses, which in the long run would include some nursery provision and sheltered housing. That would be a big addition to the disadvantaged local community but the planning application has run into difficulties, not least as objections have been made because bats apparently fly across the site.

There is also a small but very active Sikh community that has long since outgrown its premises, which are down a side street in quite a run-down part of town. It wanted to buy part of a former school site for a very inspiring multi-faith and community centre. The county council, which owns the site, would not deal with the community or with me, and referred the matter on to the estate agents, who, after initially saying that they did not have a mandate to subdivide the site, referred the matter on to the property developer who had by then bought the site, who put the price up to such an exorbitant level that the community felt that it could not really proceed. Given that the application from the Sikh community was very much in line with the needs of the wider community of the town and would also bring benefits to quite a disadvantaged area, the county council’s actions were at least questionable under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

It has been very impressive to see the way in which the different communities—I have listed just a few of them and set out some of the problems that they have experienced—have been prepared to jump over all the hurdles that have been put in their way. They have been very constructive in engaging with the local authorities and the development corporation to try to promote good relations and a good understanding between all sections of society and to work for the common good. Some have also joined together to work on joint projects. All the plans that they have put forward that I have seen include making available significant resources for local communities. The proposals have been outward looking, not inward looking.

Some years ago, because of all the difficulties, I contacted a former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ask for some duty to be put on local planning authorities to assess the needs of different faith communities when drawing up local plans for their areas. That was obviously particularly relevant for growth areas such as Northampton, which is part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. There is a real opportunity to get things right from the beginning in such communities by ensuring that there is an understanding of the needs of the existing community and of the areas from which people are likely to come into town, and that in the planning of an urban area proper provision is made for faith buildings that will meet the needs of a multi-faith society.

I was pointed in the direction of planning policy guidance note 12, which states that the diocesan board of the Church of England should be consulted about development plans and also refers to the needs of faith communities. As I recall, about half a sentence was devoted to the assessment of the needs of faith communities. This was the slightest reference that could conceivably have been given to faith communities—just enough to tick the “Done” box, but not enough to make any difference. Quite soon after that, PPG12 was replaced by planning policy statement 12, and any reference to faith communities completely disappeared. I have trawled through PPS12 several times and I have also asked the House of Commons Library to see whether it can find any reference in any of the planning guidance to the needs of faith communities. The Library says that it has not been able to find anything at all, and neither have I.

Some of the guidance in “Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities” says that faith groups should be key and respected partners of the local authority. That seems to me to be a way of paying lip service to the importance of faith communities without ensuring that they have the one thing that faith communities want—a place, with facilities, in which to worship.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Will she allow me briefly to give some perceptions from Croydon, an authority which supports faith communities in finding premises? There are some good examples of the benefits of local authorities playing such a role. An attractive church in Croydon is now used by the Jain community. Unfortunately, there are also examples of important faith communities, which can build strong communities, not being well cared for. Black churches end up in industrial buildings or find themselves being heavily opposed, as happened in Bromley in the neighbouring constituency, when a black church moved into an old cinema in Upper Norwood. Finally, the Shi’a community in Croydon finds itself without any faith building. It is important to support the various Muslim communities in times of great stress within society and show how well we respect different faiths.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. He illustrates why I sought this Adjournment debate. Society has changed substantially. With an established Church and a range of different faiths, we need to ensure that the needs of all the faiths are respected, not by providing handouts, but by making sure that difficult issues are managed properly, recognising that there are disputes between faiths sometimes and that there are different expressions of the same faith. We cannot say that there is one Muslim community so it needs only one mosque. There are different patterns of worship and different ways in which people want to express their faith.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that for some communities, starting off in an old building and converting it may be adequate. One of the mosques in Northampton started off in a house which is listed. The community has long since outgrown it and, partly because the building is listed, there is nothing much that anyone can do with it. We should recognise that as faiths become more established and grow in numbers, the community will want to move somewhere else. One that starts in a back street might want a different type of building, and one that starts on an industrial estate might find that that is not an appropriate place and want to find somewhere else.

It is important that the local authority has ways to manage that. There is some good practice around the country, which the Government could examine and build on so that we ensure that people who come to this country and who bring with them their faith and their set of beliefs find that that aspect of their culture is respected and given its due place. Faith is an essential part of any community—an expression of its beliefs and values. I do not see how faith communities can be respected, as the guidance recommends, without ensuring that they are able to buy or build the facilities that they need for the pursuit and expression of their faith.

Let me give an example, which taught me many years ago about the importance of faith buildings. When I was a newspaper reporter in South Africa, I went to Ladysmith in KwaZulu Natal to meet a mosque builder. He was born in India and as a boy worked for a mosque builder there. He came to South Africa as an indentured labourer to work in the sugarcane fields of KwaZulu Natal. Years went by, and when the Indian community in the area became more established, its members wanted a mosque. Because of apartheid, they could not go abroad to find someone to design it. The man came forward and said that he had worked as a mosque builder as a boy, and he could still remember the designs for the mosque. He drew them, and from those plans the beautiful mosque in Ladysmith was built. Indeed, he went on to build others throughout the country. The old man was a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi; he worked with him, and he had been banned by the apartheid regime. When I met him, he was very old and almost completely blind, but he had left a wonderful legacy of amazing buildings that celebrated his faith and were a focal point of the community. I do not understand how, in the middle of apartheid South Africa, the Muslim community could manage to build that absolutely beautiful mosque, yet in tolerant, multiracial Britain my constituents have to worship in a converted service station or in a listed building, which is probably a fire risk when crowded out, as it so often is, during Friday prayers.

The problem is not due to a lack of money, because nobody is asking for any handouts and, as the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) knows, the communities are all more than capable of raising money to construct such buildings. It is due to bureaucratic inertia, a lack of relevant guidance and procedures and a failure to understand the importance to faith communities of somewhere to worship. Our country has a great and historic legacy of cathedrals and other buildings that celebrate our faith. There have also been battles over the years for chapels and other Christian buildings. They are as important as the greatest cathedrals not only for tourism and worship, but for making a statement about large sections of our society. Unfortunately, however, we do not do the same for the other faiths that now make up our society.

There are funding issues, but I do not want to get into them. Religions do not qualify as charities, so they cannot access the same funding as voluntary organisations, which can register as charities. Although religious organisations and faiths can access charity funding for the non-religious parts of their buildings, such as any community or educational facilities that are attached to their place of worship, the point still remains that, for a faith, the key aspect is the ability to worship. There is a difficult issue about funding, however, and that merits further consideration.

My real request is for the Government to include in their guidance on local spatial planning a requirement for local authorities to assess the needs of religious or faith communities, and to ensure that relevant provisions are made to meet those spatial requirements. That includes proper funeral and burial arrangements. It is impossible to dictate what kind of building goes where, but I have listed a few examples of buildings, and the hon. Gentleman listed in his own area several that would meet the needs of different groups, including the number and type of mosques. However, space needs to be allocated, and faith communities need to be engaged in a process so that they can make the best and most appropriate use of those spaces. They also need to be assured that their contribution to community cohesion will be properly recognised in the planning process.

It seems complete nonsense that a former school site, which is therefore in public ownership, having been used for public service, should be sold to a property developer on which to make a profit, while a faith community, which would have provided social cohesion and facilities for a disadvantaged local community, should be denied the chance even to try to buy a small fraction of it. Particularly in growing towns like Northampton, there is an opportunity to get things right. We must ensure that as local authorities and development corporations plan the schools, hospitals and infrastructure that they need, they recognise not only that people bring along their faiths and their belief systems, which are an important part of their community, but that those needs, as well as people’s educational, health and other social needs, must be met.

The former half-sentence included in PPG12 was certainly inadequate, but that half a sentence was better than nothing. I was extremely sorry that the already small recognition in the planning system of the needs of faith communities was completely deleted when PPG12 was cancelled. I was also sorry that when the Department was approached, rather than the requirement being built up, it was just deleted.

The Government do not need to go out to huge consultation before drawing up some guidelines, which I hope they will do as a result of this debate. They should make a commitment to include in the planning guidance a requirement for local planning authorities, in undertaking development plans for the spatial needs of urban areas, to be obliged to assess the needs of the faith communities and to make proper provision in those plans for those needs. Authorities should be required to have a proper structure in place and to undertake proper consultation with the faith communities. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 provides an example. Proper recognition could be made of the real contribution of faith communities to the material benefit of local communities. This should be properly recognised, progressed and protected.

I cannot tell my hon. Friend the Minister how important this is for the communities that have played such an active role in Northampton, and I am sure that the same applies to other towns throughout the country, which so far have not been able, despite their best and most strenuous efforts, to get what they perhaps want most of all—a place where they can meet as a community and worship. They need a proper landmark and tribute paid within their towns to the beliefs that they hold dear and that define their community.

I hope that any hon. Members present and yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will not see me as a poor substitute for a Department for Communities and Local Government Minister; I shall try to do my best. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) for introducing this debate on faith buildings. I did not originally intend to be here, but I have found the debate to be fascinating. The issues posed crop up in many inner-city areas—mine as much as my hon. Friend’s and others—so we need to look at them. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), who contributed in an intervention, have raised the key issues.

The DCLG Minister was going to touch on the fact that this debate provides a rare opportunity to look at the issue of buildings owned or used by faith communities. In our short debate, we have considered the question of the interaction of faith groups with the planning system, and found it wanting. My hon. Friend made key points about that.

It might help if I refer to some of the points that the DCLG Minister would have made in the debate. In terms of the bigger picture, the Government ask local authorities to show civic leadership in how they look at such issues. Local authorities are encouraged to create visions for their community; they are the bodies that can tackle the issues raised.

My hon. Friend touched on planning policy statement 12, which is entitled “Creating strong, safe and prosperous communities through local spatial planning”. She rightly said that access to an appropriate building for a new faith community or one that is in the process of becoming established is a key issue that every local authority should address. Perhaps one of the places in which it should be addressed is the local strategic partnership. Those partnerships are meant to bring together the public, private and third sectors, and to co-ordinate the contribution that each can make.

My hon. Friend is not in any way a poor substitute; she knows a lot about planning. However, PPS12 contains nothing at all about faith communities. It is absolutely right that there should be debates in the local strategic partnerships and elsewhere, but I have found that that is all that happens. There have been lots of debates in the development corporation, for example, but we need action. There should be a statutory duty in the planning process to consider and to provide for the needs of faith communities. There must be a clear requirement in the process that those needs be considered and dealt with.

Those points have been strongly made, and I will ensure that DCLG Ministers take them on board.

It is clear that, even as the planning policy structures stand, they should be taking into account issues such as access for faith communities to land and buildings to allow them to follow their faith according to whatever form of witness they decide to adopt. There should be provision for places of worship, just as there is for child care, play and all the other things that are taken into account alongside the obvious factors such as industry, employment and the more standard parts of the national planning policy. The planning process is not meant to be one-size-fits-all, but local authorities—county and city councils—should be taking account of the needs of their own communities.

Perhaps it is relevant that we are debating this on the night of Epiphany. I know that that is meant to be about the journey of the three wise men, but I can definitely see three wise women on the Labour Benches. I very much want to support what the Minister says. When members of communities such as the Shi’a community in Croydon have to move from one person’s home to another to pray, it means that a great deal of the voluntary support that exists in the community is not delivered as well as it could be were there a place of worship in which they could base their community activities. The Minister makes an important point.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

The notes for the Minister’s speech refer to various aspects of planning controls. I remember that when I was an elected member of local government and responsible for a town centre, I found dealing with planning controls to be one of the most frustrating aspects of that role. We constantly found ourselves battling with the system. Whatever the law says, it tends to be the planning officers who have a great deal of say over such matters.

Whether the existing law is helpful or not, it says that buildings such as schools and public halls should be able to be turned into places of worship, just as they can be turned into day centres, crèches, health centres or whatever. My hon. Friend highlighted a key aspect of the issue when she described the wider benefit of those measures to community cohesion. I recently attended the opening of a new building for the Methodist community in Boothstown in my constituency. It will be a genuinely multi-use building. In fact, funding was obtained for it on the basis that it would not just be a place of worship—useful though that is—but double up as a resource that would be of considerable benefit to the wider community. That was absolutely key. If that point is not getting across to the local authority in my hon. Friend’s constituency, it should be. Her point is well made, because faith communities are not only providers of sacred and secular space for people, but a key resource in communities, particularly for newly arrived communities or communities that are working to establish themselves.

There have been publications recently on faith buildings, but the key thing is to take away the very strong point that in PPS12, we appear to have guidance that does not recognise, in even half a sentence, the need for regeneration bodies or other partnership bodies to take into account the needs of faith communities. We have heard some excellent examples in the debate of where PPS12 is falling down, and we should take my hon. Friend’s points back to the Department.

I understand that my hon. Friend is in quite a difficult position because she is not a DCLG Minister. In her capacity as Deputy Leader of the House, could she, as a way forward, facilitate a meeting in that Department—perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to be party to it—to look both at the possibility of producing some appropriate guidance that would recognise this issue and at the need for strong guidance for local authorities, drawing on the good practice that already exists in some areas?

Yes, indeed. My local authority is currently going through its strategic planning phase, as are many local authorities—I do not know whether my hon. Friend’s local authority is doing so. My local authority is considering strategic planning up to 2026. That process, as well as the normal day-to-day planning applications to which she referred, is key. There is an indication that there is a very substantial gap or lacuna in the planning process. If my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman can cite examples where the guidance is not working at local level, it behoves the Department to start thinking about whether a duty should be placed on local councils to consider such things.

The situation is that it will be inappropriate to carry on using converted service stations, disused cinemas or that type of building, and the new faith communities, as they settle, will not continue to be prepared to use them. It is true that we have some wonderful church buildings in our communities—there are some wonderful old churches in my constituency—but more newly arrived faith communities deserve buildings that are useful for purpose, too.

I do not think that the Minister would have offered anything specific if he had responded to the debate, so my hon. Friend makes a very sensible suggestion. I am quite prepared, as if this were a pre-recess Adjournment debate, to take her point away and to facilitate a meeting for her.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.