Friday, 23 March 2012

Synagogue losses appeal in which Hackney Council accused witnesses of lying

A long-running planning dispute between Hackney Council and a synagogue in Stamford Hill - in which the council accused Ultra Orthodox Jewish (Charedi) witnesses of lying -  has been won by the council.

The dispute was about the unauthorised synagogue at 57 Bethune Road.

The Planning Inspector was less harsh in her opinion about Charedi witnesses called to defend the dates on which building work was finished:  "I do not dispute that the witnesses aimed to assist the inquiry.  However, human memory can be unreliable and the oral evidence described is at odds with Council records."

However the fact that costs were awarded and the Planning Inspector described some aspects of the claim as "unreasonable" suggest that she wasn't entirely happy with the appellant's case. I'm not sure if that confirms the council's claim that Satmar Limited and Mr Y Grossberger, knew that their claims were false.

Or, as the council put it on the day, that the appeal was pursued: "in the hope that the true information regarding the extension would not come out."

The planning inspector Jean Russell said: "The appellants must have known when the extension was formed.  It is used for prayer in the appeal synagogue.  The appellants indicated in their response to the
Planning Contravention Notice that refurbishing works took place in the two years prior to August 2009.  In my view, they acted unreasonably in pursuing the ground (d) appeals for the extension."

She also pointed out that they had "called three witnesses to give oral evidence on the history of the extension (amongst other matters)" adding "I conclude that unreasonable behaviour, as described in C03/09, has been demonstrated.  The Council incurred wasted expense, prior to and during the
inquiry, in countering the appeals on ground (d) insofar as they related to the
alleged extension.  A partial award of costs is justified."

I haven't had a chance to read the decision properly but will tackle it again later. Rabbi Abraham Pinter commented on planning issues like these last month here and here. The question is whether the decision will dissuade Charedi developers from building or changing use of buildings without seeking planning permission.

The technicalities of the decision are many but the practical outcome seems to be outlined in this part of the decision:

• Remove the unauthorised rear extension and restore the rear of the
property to its condition before the unauthorised development took place;
• Cease the use of the property as a synagogue with ancillary facilities, and
remove all equipment, partitions and walls which facilitated the
unauthorised use from the site; and
• Remove all waste, materials, equipment and debris created and make
good all damage resulting from compliance with this notice so as to
restore the property to its condition before the unauthorised development
took place.

But I will check this through with the council next week.

One thing I did see that may be of interest to the "demand vs need" argument addressed by Cllr Ned Mulready and later by Rabbi Pinter was mentioned, although again I'm not totally sure how it relates to the debate.

The Planning Inspector said: "I was impressed by the number of local residents who signed petitions, wrote letters and attended both days of the inquiry in support of the development.

"They described the importance of the synagogue to their community and for their individual spiritual needs. However, I can only deduce from this evidence that there is a demand rather than a clear need for a synagogue at this site.

She also said: "The Council has provided a list of 42 local synagogues that are deemed to be active by the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.  The appellants put it to the inquiry that few of these synagogues are purpose-built, most are small and their total capacity is less than 3000.  They cannot meet the needs of a population of 22,000 people and they are often full."

"I also heard that different synagogues serve different sects with their own traditions and customs.

"However, it is unclear if the list of synagogues correlates to the same area covered by the community directory.  The population figures in any event may include people who do not maintain religious practice.  I have seen limited other evidence, such as lists of planning applications, to demonstrate or quantify a need for more synagogues; It has neither been shown whether any shortage of places of worship is ‘across the board’, related to the area within walking distance of the site and/or related to the appellants’ sect.6  I visited no.57 during morning prayers on a weekday and it was not being used to capacity."

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