Report on Meeting of September 29th 2015
Talk by Canon Andrew Wickens, Team Vicar of Dudley
The Revd Canon Andrew Wickens, Anglican vicar in central Dudley (and son-in-law of our Chairman) gave us a detailed account of the long struggle of the Muslim community in central Dudley to replace their mosque with a new building, which would include a community centre. Andrew chairs the Dudley Interfaith Network, and has been trying to keep the peace in Dudley and support the Muslim community since taking up his post ten years ago.
He described the borough of Dudley as a sequence of urban villages, with some 305,000 inhabitants. The local authority has swung politically, so there has been no stable consensus. BNP councillors were elected in 2005 but lost their seats later. When a bypass was agreed the land Muslims owned and expected to build the new mosque on was swapped by agreement for another site, (which had long been derelict, but is in the neighbourhood near to the homes of many Muslims), but then they ran into planning difficulties. A petition signed by 20,000 supposedly local people claimed that parking on the new site would be a problem, and the mosque would not be in keeping with the ‘medieval’ church, which is actually 19th century.
There has been a series of visitations initially by the BNP and then by the EDL, ranging in the amount of violence and damage caused. During the early meetings local shopkeepers had to board up their premises on Saturdays when they did most of their trading, and lost considerable amounts of income. Good order was threatened. Andrew believes that legally there is a common right to protest but no equivalent right to march. But when protesters arrive how are they to reach the place of protest without walking or ‘marching’? They come from various parts of the UK mainly by train, and mostly with no connection with Dudley. In attempts to reduce violence, the police charter buses to transport supporters to the place designated for the protest. Problems usually arise at the dispersal of protests, often fuelled by alcohol. We were appalled to hear of the terror experienced by very small Muslim children encountering this wall of hatred.
Twenty years after the original land purchase, the whole mosque plan is at an impasse and the Muslim community has to continue to use their totally inadequate premises – a former first school. There is a standard clause written into the current arrangement which provides that land may be returned to the Council if the grantees do not build on it within five years This may have to be enacted to ensure that councillors are not personally liable for misuse of public funds despite the fact that building cannot go ahead until detailed plans are accepted by the planning authorities.
Andrew has been instrumental in organising peaceful ‘counter activities’ with Muslim leaders, the MP and local people, so that they may be seen to stand together in support of the plans for a new mosque. Several times they have made statements on the Midland News and in local papers. There are also community events, where food and activities are shared, demonstrating peaceful coexistence.
For Stratford Interfaith Forum, the many questions reflected how different daily life in Dudley is from that in Stratford, where we are not subjected to potentially violent and damaging protests from people with an axe to grind but no real connection with the locality, and where planning proposals are unlikely to be unresolved after twenty years, with no solution in prospect.