The architect of a planned £120 million arts centre for ethnic minorities in north London has accused the capital's planning authorities of 'institutional racism' after the scheme was controversially shelved last month.
Elsie Owusu alleged last week that the Government Office for London (GOL) and others had demonstrated 'institutional discrimination' in dealing with her practice's plans - backed by politicians including the late Bernie Grant MP and the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Chris Smith MP - to build the International Centre for the Performing Arts (ICPA) at Tottenham Hale. The design featured a 4000-capacity auditorium, a nine-screen cinema and a night club. But resistance to the plans from GOL, Haringey Council and local residents meant that the scheme was blocked and on 19 July the site was sold by the London Borough of Bromley to Middlesex University to build a new campus.
A smaller version of the ICPA scheme has been drawn up for another site.
Owusu said that the planning process had upheld racist objections by local groups. 'Any large black or ethnic minority project is going to have to deal with this issue, ' she said. ICPA project director Rikki Stein supported her view.'When the Middlesex University option came up it was so much safer for the GOL and the Millennium Commission [which was considering offering a £10 million grant to the ICPA], ' said Stein. 'I remain convinced that the authorities thought that black people would not be able to put this project together.'
The scheme was due to create around 1500 jobs. The project team was told that if the London Borough of Haringey offered planning consent then GOL would call it in for a public inquiry, jeopardising the immediate future of the site. And in private meetings Owusu was told that the GOL was concerned about the involvement of cinema operator Warner Village - a financial anchor for the ICPA development - and possible traffic problems.
Haringey hotly denied the allegation of racism. A spokeswoman for the council said that ICPA's application to buy the land had not been ready on time and that the ICPA's planning application had been incomplete. A member of the now -defunct London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC) which saw the scheme also denied any racist motivation. 'LPAC said it was not in the right location and it was nothing to do with the type of development, ' said the official.
But Owusu claimed that local objectors invoked racial stereotypes by raising fears that youngsters from ethnic minorities would use the ICPA as a base for drug-dealing.
During the public consultation Grant even wrote to a local residents group to complain of an 'underlying feeling of racism' at meetings with the architect.A planning consultant employed by the ICPA team confirmed the sentiment.
'This project was clearly aimed at ethnic minorities and that has undoubtedly caused concern to local residents, ' he told the AJ.
Owusu is planning to demand a public inquiry into how the scheme was handled and will call on the support of the Society of Black Architects and the new RIBA antidiscrimination initiative, Architects for Change, launched last week (see page 18).