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A battle to preserve secular character of a British heritage building

A secular space: The building dates back to the 19th century and is considered a site of historical importance.   | Photo Credit: Vidya Ram

On a busy crossroads in the heart of Southall, home to one of London’s largest Indian communities, stands an old porticoed town hall. Dating back to the 19th century, the Grade II listed building (regarded as having particular heritage by the public body Historic England) no longer acts as the centre of local government, but houses offices and community organisations.

Among those occupying the ground floor are the Southall Community Alliance, which provides support for Southall’s diverse community; and the Migrant Advice and Advocacy Service that provides vital free immigration advice to dozens of people a week. Around 10,000 local people use the Alliance’s facilities every year.

However, the building’s future direction remains uncertain amid a heated dispute over the local council’s plans to hand the long-term (250-year) lease for the building to a neighbouring temple.

Judicial review

A judicial review is set to take place next week at London’s Royal Court of Justice, after members of the community successfully took the local council to court, contesting the deal struck with the Vishwa Hindu Kendra next door.

Their attempt to contest the lack of consultation wasn’t accepted by the judge in April. However, they’ve been given the go ahead to challenge the ‘value for money’ aspect, and to check whether a thorough impact assessment had been carried out to ascertain the potential adverse impact the sale would have on the local community.

The case was brought by the member of the Save the Southall Town Hall Campaign, which has attracted support from a large range of community organisations — from resident associations to Tamil and Punjabi Groups — and local businesses. “We aren’t opposed to it because a temple is involved,” said Harsev Bains of the Southall Community Alliance, which is part of the campaign, pointing to an accusation that has been levelled at the group. “It wouldn’t matter if it was to a Christian, Sikh, Muslim or Hindu organisation. We are opposed to the sale of a community asset. It’s the last secular building we have where the multicultural, multi-religious, diverse communities in Southall can come together.”

Over the past few years, like other local councils across the U.K., hit by funding pressures, Ealing Council has let go of a range of properties, from libraries to community centres.

Reasons for sale

In a letter to the local MP Virendra Sharma last year explaining the reasons for the sale, council leader Julian Bell pointed to the impact of budget cuts, and the “significant” capital investment the hall would require to keep it safe and usable, at a time when school and housing investments had to be prioritised.

Campaigners said that they recognise the pressures on the council but argued that the temple deal is far from the solution. The £2.1-million figure for the 250-year lease, which the campaign group became aware of in documents released by the council, was well below the market value in the area, said Janpal Basran of the Alliance. He pointed to the current price tag of far smaller retail properties in the area, where single units were selling for £2 million, citing online sales portals. “It defies all logic,” he said.

Mr. Bains argued that with the community under pressure due to budget cuts, buildings like the town hall — and the community organisations within it — matter all the more to provide vital support services and aid community cohesion.

A community asset

“In an increasing diverse society, it’s vital that we protect and preserve secular spaces which play such an important role in bringing people of all faith and ethnic backgrounds together,” said Stephen Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society.

“Southall Town Hall is a much-loved community asset — plans to lease it for the exclusive use of one particular section of the community tramples all over its rich history of pluralism and multiculturalism. It’s a form of cultural vandalism which must be resisted,” he said.

The building has historic significance too: in 1979 an anti-racism campaigner, Blair Peach, was killed by police during a demonstration against a meeting of the far-right National Front that was allowed to take place in the town hall.

The building has continued to be a powerful reminder of the way the community rallied together to fight forces of intolerance — something that remains relevant today in Southall and beyond. “The council insists this is not a community building but if this is not what is?” asked Mr. Bains.

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 4:16:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/a-battle-to-preserve-secular-character-of-a-british-heritage-building/article24300994.ece

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