Race row erupts over Langho cemetery plan

The chairman of an opposition group against a proposed 10,000 plot multi-faith natural burial ground in Langho says it will continue to battle the plan but hopes to quell a growing atmosphere of animosity.

Chairman of the newly-established “Ribble Valley Matters” opposition group, Brian Lamb, has this week faced questions about whether there is an undercurrent of racism in the group with certain comments from members posted online.

A petition attracting 1,800 signatures has been set up opposing the woodland cemetery on a 27 acre site off Northcote Road and a meeting was held at Northcote Stud on Friday night following a heated public consultation evening at Billington and Langho Community Centre.

Justin Smith, Director at Cemetery Development Services, acting on behalf of applicant the Blackburn with Darwen Muslim Cemetery Trust, says he has reported to Bedfordshire Police “a number of phone threats of violence” against staff that are being investigated.

Mr Smith also said the applicant is considering making an official complaint about Coun. Stephen Atkinson, who sits on Ribble Valley Borough Council’s Planning Committee, about perceived Islamophobic questions at the public consultation meeting and his suitability on deciding on the application. However, Coun Atkinson has said he will not sit on the committee when the cemetery plan is debated.

Speaking to the Clitheroe Advertiser and Times, Mr Lamb said: “We have to stay away from the issue of race. But you are always going to get a few nutters jumping on the bandwagon. They can jump off ours.

The proposed burial ground off Northcote Road opposite Northcote Manor.

The proposed burial ground off Northcote Road opposite Northcote Manor.

“Our new committee is multi-faith and we have members opposing the plan who are Muslim.

“The planning application is going to be decided on technical matters, highways and environmental, and these are the two main issues.”

Mr Smith said: “One call came in saying he was at the meeting and if I ever came up there again I would get what’s coming to me. Another one was something similar but not quite as robust as that.

“It was the most disgusting meeting of racially motivated objections I have ever been to.

It was the most disgusting meeting of racially motivated objections I have ever been to

Justin Smith, Director at Cemetery Development Services

“I have had 14 complaints from Muslims passed to the applicant and on to us as consultants from the meeting who felt Coun. Atkinson was mocking their religion.

“Some of the things he said were outrageous and not a single question was on a planning matter, it was about culture or religion.

“We don’t think he is a suitable councillor to be sitting on the planning committee deciding on this application. How can he be? And that’s the point we will be making to the council’s senior planning officer when we meet next week.”

Coun. Atkinson rejected the suggestion his questions were Islamophobic, saying: “My questions were legitimate questions about how a multi-faith cemetery would work in practice.

“We were approached by a Muslim who felt he would not be able to be buried at the site so I asked the question (about Shia Muslim burial).

“I asked about segregation because it is proposed as multi-faith and the third question was about what would happen when a Muslim burial arrived and women were present at the cemetery because I understood Muslim culture to view women as feint of heart.

“I find it really disappointing and upsetting that this has been turned into a race issue when it is nothing of the sort. It’s a planning matter.

“These were legitimate questions put to me from constituents. I accepted the answers, I didn’t rubbish them.

“I decided three weeks ago I wouldn’t be sitting on the planning committee to make a decision on this, so they don’t need to worry about that.”

The objecting group has the support of Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans and Mr Lamb thanked him for a rousing speech made at Friday’s meeting.

Mr Evans has said he is “totally and unequivocally” opposed to the proposed 10,000 plot burial ground, predominantly to serve Blackburn and Darwen and the Muslim community, saying the 27 acre site directly opposite Northcote hotel and restaurant is the “wrong” location.

Mr Evans also said the suggestion Blackburn with Darwen would run out of burial space was unfounded after Coun. Jim Smith, Executive member for Environment at Blackburn with Darwen Council, said £1m. had been invested in Pleasington Cemetery for an additional 2,500 plots ensuring a 20 year supply of graves within the borough for people of all faiths.

Coun. Smith said: “It’s up to the local council to make a decision on the plan but using the excuse of Blackburn running out of space is simply not true.”

Justin Smith said Coun. Smith’s figures “don’t add up” and the applicant’s statistics actually came from Blackburn with Darwen Council.

Plans are expected to be submitted to Ribble Valley Borough Council within the next two weeks.