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Appeal: Jenrick quashes enforcement against museum for ‘India’s greatest figure’

Primrose Hill / iStock: 609804854

The housing secretary has quashed enforcement action against a museum commemorating the Indian statesman Dr B R Ambedkar that was set up in a Camden townhouse bought and converted by an Indian state government in 2015.

LOCATIONPrimrose Hill
AUTHORITYCamden Borough Council
PROCEDURERecovered appeal
DECISIONAllowed and notice quashed

The appeal concerned a four-storey townhouse in Primrose Hill, North London. In 2015, the house was purchased for £3 million by the government of Maharashtra, a state in western India, which converted it from two flats into a museum commemorating Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a scholar and civil rights activist known best for drafting India’s constitution after it won independence in 1947. He lived at the appeal property between 1921 and 1922, while studying at the LSE.

The house has operated as a free-to-visit museum since it was inaugurated by the Indian prime minister in 2015. It features a gallery, reading room, and meditation space, as well as a statue of Dr Ambedkar in its rear garden.

In January 2018, the museum was reported to the council, which found that the change of use from class C3 to D1 was unauthorised, rejecting a retrospective application for permission and issuing enforcement action on this basis. The subsequent appeal was recovered by the secretary of state in September 2019, leading to a two-day inquiry led by inspector K L Williams.

At the inquiry, the council argued that allowing the loss of two homes would “have a negative impact on housing availability in a situation where every home counts” and could set a harmful precedent. 

The council did not dispute Dr Ambedkar’s “importance in the social, economic and political development of India”, but commented that he was “not of national importance in the UK”. 

A museum was not justified at the appeal property, it argued, because the statesman’s association with the house was “fleeting”, commenting that there was not “a sufficiently strong link between Dr Ambedkar, his achievements and this ordinary suburban house, where he spent one year as a student”, to justify allowing the appeal.

It argued that the blue plaque commemorating the building’s history was not part of the official English Heritage scheme, and would not be justified under it because “when the association is less than five years, far greater stringency is applied”, adding that “anyone can put up a blue plaque on a building”.

It rejected comparisons to museums dedicated to Sigmund Freud and Erno Goldfinger in the borough, noting that they both had almost half-century associations with the buildings that became museums to them. 

The appellants, on the other hand, referred to Dr Ambedkar’s “god-like status” in India, noting that in a poll of 18 million Indians carried out in 2012, he had been voted “the greatest figure in Indian history”. They described the establishment of a memorial to him as “particularly important to the Indian diaspora”, which numbered 437,000 in London alone in 2011.

The museum was helping to highlight the historical links between India and Britain, they argued, and the loss of only two residential units amount to only a “minute fraction” of the council’s housing supply. The “rare and specific circumstances” of the case meant no precedent would be set, they added.

Inspector Williams commented that “while there may well be significant difficulty for the council in delivering housing in the future”, the appeal scheme would have only a “small effect” on supply. 

He found “ample evidence to demonstrate the stature of Dr Ambedkar”, stating that – contrary to the council's argument – he was a “major figure in both Indian and British history”. He also found “extensive evidence” that “a strong personal and spiritual link between the appeal property and Dr Ambedkar” was “widely perceived, particularly among people of Indian heritage”.

The museum was “well presented and welcoming”, he continued, and there was scope to expand its educational offering. The fact that the blue plaque was not installed under the English Heritage scheme carried little weight, he added. Concluding that the dismissal of the appeal would be contrary to the Equality Act 2010, he recommended that the enforcement notice be quashed and permission granted.

In his own decision letter, secretary of state Robert Jenrick wholly agreed with his inspector, ruling that “the benefit of having a museum dedicated to Dr Ambedkar in a location which has strong associations with him and which is readily accessible by public transport weighs significantly in favour of the scheme”. On this basis, he allowed the appeal.

The inspector’s report – case reference 3219239 – can be read here.

Image credit | iStock