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Ombudsman launches inquiry into planning racism claims

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The parliamentary ombudsman has launched an investigation into claims that government officials 'improperly' blocked a planning application for a £120 million black and ethnic minority performing arts centre.

The alleged malpractice was first reported in the AJ in August (3.8.00) when the scheme collapsed amid claims of institutional racism from architect Elsie Owusu.

Now the ombudsman has appointed a special investigator to scrutinise the behaviour of the Government Office for London, and in particular senior civil servant John Sinkiewicz.

The aggrieved architect claims that Sinkiewicz torpedoed the scheme by threatening to refer the planning application to John Prescott unless a key backer, the cinema operator Warner Village, was excluded from the project.The official told Owusu that Warner may blight the Tottenham Hale site if it was only involved on a speculative basis. Owusu complains that this move fatally damaged the planning application and that her practice lost out on fees worth £6 million as a result.

The scheme had the backing of the late Bernie Grant and now Owusu's local MP, Frank Dobson, is supporting the sensitive investigation which the ombudsman said 'it can and should investigate'.

'Architects have a difficult enough time getting planning applications through, 'Owusu said.'The process should be transparent.'

Although the ombudsman's decision is a boost to Owusu's campaign to bring down barriers for black and ethnic minority practices, the investigator on the case, Karen Grantham, said that 'it is most unlikely' that the Owusu will be financially compensated even if the investigation uncovers maladministration.A report is due next October.

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