Linda Colling: Mosque in Millfield?

A view of Earl Street taken from the side of council building
A view of Earl Street taken from the side of council building
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IT’S totally unfair and I’d say the same whether this was a mosque, McDonald’s, a pub or anything that would create the car parking, noise and traffic problems that will come if this controversial plan for a new mosque goes ahead.

It’s very much a vexed question for those living on the doorstep. And it’s as plain as a pikestaff what is going to happen here if planning approval is given on February 14 by Sunderland City Council for a new Islamic Centre in St Mark’s Road, in what is now the council’s vehicle depot.

While it would solve the problem of closing the “illegal” mosque further up the road, which is operating without planning permission, it would create major disturbance and disruption as the largest mosque of its kind outside of South Shields.

The fear is it is going to attract devotees day and night and even in the wee small hours, although the application is for 7am to 10pm.

It would be totally unfair to brand people racists because they don’t want their lives disrupted, see their property prices plummett and their quiet community gone forever.

This is a local issue, not a racist or religious one, as I was told repeatedly by both the Muslim residents I met and others, all living just a stone’s throw from the depot.

There’s been 700 objections and a petition of 1,462 names. Dad of four, Morkbul Hussain and his wife Seema, 40, are not among them. But this warm, hospitable couple, whose house backs on to the depot and who welcomed me into their Arol Park home, said it was purely on religious grounds that they weren’t objecting.

But as Seema explained: “I understand people objecting but we don’t think there will be that much of a problem for us. It will be more of a problem for people on Earl Street.”

Mokbul, 50, a chef said: “It doesn’t matter what colour or religion you are, I wouldn’t object to any sort of church because it is between you and God.”

Many are rightly asking why the council has not carried out a wider public consultation exercise on this application by Mazhar Mahmood on behalf of the Pakistani Islamic Centre.

Lib Dem councillor Paul Dixon is one. He told me: “It shouldn’t have gone this far. It should never have been agreed to sell it for a mosque without consulting the community and local councillors.

“I’d say nine out of ten, possibly ten out of ten don’t want it. I don’t think the council can pass it. We have some valid reasons. Everybody thinks it will get passed because they have no faith in the system.” As for Paul? “I am still confident.” But he cautioned: “We have got a good balance in Millfield and you can tip that balance.”

If this goes ahead it will have a major impact and will change the character of Millfield. And that’s what annoys people and that they found out by accident, not informed officially.

Paul found out at a Pallion Residents’ meeting and says the application went in two days before Christmas. And he understands that the Pakistani Islamic Centre had looked at ten other sites and dismissed them.

Joyce Murray, 69, has lived in Earl Street for 42 years and her home is a mere 10 metres away from the depot. She fears losing the peace and quiet and cars parking the length of the street.

In her little palace she showed me the plans for converting the depot and said: “The council have been trying to get them out of the illegal one for a couple of years. All my money is in this house. Where can I go? Will I get the money if I sold the house?

“I am worried all the time at what is going to happen. I don’t want men round about here during the night, two o’clock in the morning or four o’ clock.”

Retired butcher, Ernie Bransby, 68, who lives a few doors away and has been there 32 years, admits: “I’m one of those who live and let live but I’m worried about the noise disruption.”

Another major concern is that St Mark’s Road, already a rally track for those who cut through from Hylton Road to Chester Road, will become even more of a danger.

Sports science student, Paul Carr, 36, fears for the safety of his two children, Hannah, five and Adam, 10, with increased traffic. He said: “I have lived here 20 plus years and it’s frustrating when you work hard and something like this happens and has the potential to turn your life upside down.

“The site’s never gone on the open market and it would have been of interest to a lot of people, like a friend who would have been interested in developing it.“

Millfield does not have a large Pakistani community. And Paul pointed out: “The mosque is not just for the people round here but from all over the region and they will be parking all times of the day and night. If it was in an industrial area it wouldn’t make any difference. Why should our quality of life be affected?”

It’s one thing finding a new home for worshippers at the mosque but not at the expense of driving anyone out of theirs.

l Sunderland City Council has agreed in principle to sell the depot in St. Mark’s Road to the Pakistani Islamic and Community Centre, conditional on the mosque ganing planning permission.