The English Defence League (EDL) is to stage a demo in Newcastle after the city council approved plans to turn the Byker Grove building into an Islamic school.
The protest has been criticised by interfaith and anti-fascist groups, with plans already under way for a counter-demonstration.
The rally, the first to be organised in Newcastle by the organisation since 2010, has been approved on a national level and will take place in May next year, according to an EDL regional spokesman.
Last week, Newcastle City Council gave permission to convert Benwell Towers – formerly used by the BBC to film Byker Grove – into a fee-paying Islamic school. The BAHR Academy, which will not open until at least 2014, will provide education for up to 340 boys and girls aged 11 to 16.
Lesley George Simms, project co-ordinator, said anyone protesting against the plans was “seriously misinformed”. Mr Simms said Benwell Towers was “a historic building but not one group other than this academy have put their hands into their pockets and said they will put it to use”. He added: “These people [the EDL] say they’re bothered about England, but what have they done to try to save this landmark?”
The building has been empty since filming ended on the BBC children’s drama in 2006. Mr Simms said the building would require a major, year-long refurbishment, which would bring businesses and new jobs to the area. “It’s the only Islamic school within 200 miles of Newcastle, so the catchment area is huge,” he said.
Reacting to the news of an EDL rally next year, Weyman Bennett, national secretary of Unite Against Fascism, said the group lacked a serious support base in the North East. “The EDL are wrong in thinking the region is an area with any support for racist or fascist policies,” he said.
Mr Bennett added the UAF would organise another counter-demonstration if the rally went ahead. “If they do mobilise in a large number we will have a mass counter-demonstration against them, organised together with local groups,” he said. “If it’s small we will just ignore them like we have done before. The danger in austerity Britain is it’s too close to the atmosphere of the 1930s to let these people do their work.”
Dr Hari Shukla, chair of the Tyne and Wear Interfaith Committee said the school would benefit more than just the Muslim community. “These places are not of use only to the faith concerned,” he said. “They help promote a dialogue and understanding.”
See also Sky Tyne and Wear, 15 December 2012