The UK government on Friday (20) stepped in to decide the future of Ambedkar House in north London, threatened with closure due to an alleged breach of local planning rules.
Robert Jenrick, UK Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, “recovered” the appeal in the case, which means the government will decide the case based on recommendations from an independent inspector appointed by the UK’s Planning Inspectorate.
The inspector will oversee an inquiry into the appeal, due to commence next Tuesday, following which he will prepare a report and recommendation for ministers to take a call.
“Given the exceptional importance of Dr Ambedkar in the story of the creation of modern India, and the lasting contribution of the British-Indian community on the shared cultural heritage of our country, I have decided to recover the appeal for determination by central government,” Jenrick said.
The important government intervention follows the controversy triggered by the local authority, Camden Council, rejecting an application filed by the Indian authorities to convert the residential property into an official memorial in memory of Babsaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution.
Ambedkar House is a four-storey townhouse at 10 King Henry’s Road in Camden area of London, where the Dalit rights activist lived in 1921-22 during his student days at London School of Economics (LSE).
The home was bought by the Maharashtra government and refurbished to transform into a memorial-cum-museum, which now houses photographs and belongings of Ambedkar, with the walls adorned with his famous quotations.
It had been an important stop on Narendra Modi’s first visit to the UK as prime minister in November 2015 but it ran into trouble after it emerged that the right clearances for the creation of a museum on the site had not been sought. The Indian High Commission in London re-filed an appropriate planning application, which was rejected last month.
The Camden Council report noted: “The four-storey property does not have permission to be used as a museum and must be returned to residential use.
“In terms of balancing the loss of residential floor space against the cultural benefits, there is nothing to suggest that an alternative site could not be found – Dr Ambedkar lived there for a comparatively short time.”
The Indian side, which has engaged Singhania & Co legal firm for its appeal against the decision, argues that the home holds special significance for a huge section of Indians in the UK and outside because it was where Babasaheb lived during a crucial formative period in his academic life.
An English Heritage blue plaque, with the words Dr Bhimjirao Ramji Ambedkar 1891-1956 Indian Crusader for social justice lived here, records this aspect of the site’s history. That view seems to have found echoes in the UK government intervention this week as well.
The Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government notes that the property on King Henry’s Road was converted into a museum dedicated to Ambedkar who lived in the property while studying at the London School of Economics.
“Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was the first law and justice minister in an independent India and is described as the ‘principal architect’ of India’s Constitution. The museum was inaugurated by Indian Prime Minister Modi in 2015. The building was bought by the government of Maharashtra, the western Indian state containing Mumbai,” it adds.
According to details of the planning application, the local residents of the area do not seem entirely pleased with the attention attracted by the home on their quiet residential street.
“Number of visitors is harmful to neighbouring amenity: the number of visitors to the property has increased 100 per cent they arrive in coach loads taking photos and making a noise,” notes an objection from one of the neighbours on the street.
However, the Indian stand is that there have been no disruptive activities undertaken at the site and all visitors to the property visit to pay their respects, rather than be disruptive.
Camden Council confirmed a public inquiry hearing in relation with the Indian appeal next Tuesday, when the Inspector will hear evidence from both sides and issue a report. Any decision in the matter is not expected for a number of weeks after the inquiry, which is expected to last for one day but could be longer.