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Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010
Camberley mosque meeting had elements of pantomime
By Heather Driscoll-Woodford
BBC Surrey

Protesters at Camberley Mosque meeting
The Camberley mosque plans sparked great debate across the community

It had all the elements of a first rate pantomime, with plenty of excitement, drama and suspense, tears and laughter.

The enthusiastic audience, happily munching sweets in the stalls, cheered, booed and hissed as they saw fit.

And the players on stage threw themselves with gusto into the emotion of the piece, to the crowd's delight.

A perfect show. Except that this was a planning meeting and not theatre. There were no "baddies". And the ending, for some at least, was not a happy one.

It was guaranteed to be a full house.

Hundreds of people queued outside Camberley Theatre, which was the venue for an extraordinary council meeting to decide on two local planning applications.

Protester awaits planning meeting
Hundreds of people queued outside Camberley Theatre

One was a request for permission to demolish a locally listed Victorian school building in order to erect a purpose built mosque on the site.

And the other, an application to lift restrictions on building in a protected conservation area.

The cold March chill had little impact on the expectant crowd, some of whom had been there for hours.

No-one had tickets and those nearer the back were happy to wait in the hope they would be lucky enough to witness the debate.

The first few in, when the doors finally opened, were the epitome of "middle England", with some carrying the folding chairs they had been sitting in, outside the theatre, since 9am that morning.

The rest came through, chair-less, in a steady flow, held back in groups at the door, as council officials took a head count.

As it turned out, about 150 people were finally turned away once the venue reached full capacity and the doors were closed.

It took a while to usher everyone to their seats, some grabbing snacks from the vending machines, to sustain them through, what turned out to be, a very long night.

Most had never witnessed a planning meeting, nor probably up until now, had ever wanted to. And no-one had seen one quite like this.

In fact, they wouldn't have had the opportunity to see one at all, had an earlier planning committee ruling in favour of the mosque, not been overturned on a technicality.

Now six weeks later, 350 members of the public, 36 local councillors, the Mayor and a handful of other officials were crammed into the auditorium for the final show.

Speakers on both sides took to the stage, with impassioned pleas to either save the existing building from demolition, or to look to the future and allow a new one in its place.

Sniggering in the ranks

The audience clapped enthusiastically and even stomped their feet in agreement, as each speaker's allotted time of four minutes ended.

Camberley's Mayor, Councillor Craig Fennell, resplendent in an outfit that could have been made for panto, scolded them at every new outburst.

His initial reprimands were met by quiet sniggering in the ranks, but eventually noted, as the evening wore on and people realised they would be there for a very long time if proceedings were held up further.

Debates followed and revealed some councillors were far better prepared than others. In fact, a few seemed ill informed of official procedure, a fact highlighted by some of the points of clarity raised.

As the final curtain came down with councillors voting almost unanimously to reject both applications, the Muslim community could not hide their disappointment.

Learning they had lost their fight, some said they believed there was an element of racism in the final decision.

One man told BBC Surrey "Since 911 and 7/7 every news about the Muslims has become a hot potato."

Listed building

Camberley mosque plans rejected

And Nahrni Choudhury, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of the BWA said "It's about the fact that we are Muslims and we are an ethnic minority and they don't want to see a mosque here."

But Conservative council leader Moira Gibson said she thought people did feel strongly about the conservation area.

To most of those in the audience it was easy to see that both sides had compelling arguments, but the applications did go against local and national planning regulations.

As one speaker suggested, imagine a large block of flats, with two towers and a penthouse with a dome. It would never be given permission on the site.

Now the Berkshire, Hampshire & Surrey Bengali Welfare Association are considering an appeal against both decisions.

And although it may be the end of Act one, you can be sure this show will go on.

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