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Appeal after council tells Indian government to close ‘founding father’ museum

Objection filed over 'coachloads' of visitors to Bhimrao Ambedkar's former house

28 August, 2019 — By Richard Osley

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visits Ambedkar House in 2015

WITH a desk full of applications for basement digs, dormer windows and roof terraces to plough through, the work of Camden’s planners may seem an ultra-parochial occupation from the outside.

But a decision over the future of a property in Primrose Hill has taken on truly international significance after the Town Hall blocked permission for a museum dedicated to an Indian social reformer seen as a hero to legions of admirers.

The Indian government has been told the resource centre at Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s former home in King Henry’s Road must be closed down and the building returned to use for residential ­pur­poses. The decision was made by officials without being considered by a panel of elected councillors under “delegated powers”.

But an appeal has now been lodged and a UK government planning inspector will next month consider whether the refusal of a retrospective “change of use” application should be overturned.

Camden’s planning department had said in its verdict: “There is nothing to suggest that an alternative site could not be found and it is not considered to be a sufficiently compelling reason that Dr Ambedkar once resided in the house (for a comparatively short time).”

The council had received two objections from neighbours and two letters of support for the museum before reaching its ruling last year.

Dr Ambedkar is seen as one of Indian’s founding fathers, having helped write its constitution, and is celebrated with a statue in the garden and a long-standing blue plaque on the front wall.

A collection of his belongings is on display. The building was bought in 2015 by the government in Maharashtra – in western India – with the intention of using it as a museum. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited soon after its purchase. Dr Ambedkar had lived in the townhouse – now known as Ambedkar House – during the 1920s while studying at the London School of Economics. One of the objectors said that since the property had changed hands, she had been disturbed “day and night” and that “coachloads” of visitors came to the property.

Another suggested a parking and crowd management system to the Beatles’ former houses in Liverpool should be used, “where visitors assemble on another site and come in small groups to the main house”.

The Right Reverend Lord Richard Harries of Pentregarth, a supporter of the museum, had previously written to the council, explaining the scale of Dr Ambedkar’s following and describing his “re­markable achievements and social reform”.

He said: “He is followed and revered by over 260 million Dalits worldwide and is an inspiration to many more as a social reformer. Having a house where he spent two years of his life dedicated to him as a resource and visitor centre will be invaluable for his followers and the generation of people and children interested in human rights, equality and justice” The planning appeal hearing is due to begin on September 24.

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