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Night czar offers recipe for saving London’s LGBT venues

Words: Simon Wicks
The royal Vauxhall Tavern

Planners can take the lead in arresting the decline of London’s LGBT venues and protecting its cultural spaces, according to London’s night czar.

A suite of tools already available to planners, combined with new tools that are being readied for introduction to the capital may be enough to halt an alarming 58 per cent fall in LGBT venues in London over the last decade.

“I knew it was bad but I didn’t realise it was that bad,” Amy Lamé said at the first birthday celebrations for Planning Out, the LGBTQ+ planning networking group, at City Hall.

Citing a new UCL report into London’s LGBTQ+ cultural infrastructure (pdf), she said: “Actually venues are thriving. They are successful businesses […] This report shows that LGBT venues are closing because of external measures – development, lack of safeguarding measures in the planning system, business rates, change of use by landlords (see below: Reasons for LGBT venue closures).”

Particularly at risk, the report found, were venues catering to women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups.

The closures have also come against against a general backdrop of losses of night-time venues across the UK: over a similar period, 44 per cent of the UK’s nightclubs have closed (2005-2015) and 25 per cent of UK pubs (2001-2016).

According to Lamé, “planning policy in London Plan and local plans have a really important role to play” in arresting the decline and protecting venues. Indeed, the London Plan’s Draft SPG – Culture and the night-time economy (pdf) states: “Facilities that meet the needs of particular groups (for example, LGBT+ community) should be protected. The loss of these facilities should be resisted.”

Planners already have many of the tools available, Lamé argued. Citing the example of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London’s oldest gay venue which she campaigned to protect, the night czar listed the steps that had saved it from development: first it had been registered as an asset of community value; then listed; then reclassed as a sui generis building. At this point the owner gave up plans to demolish and redeveloped he site as a hotel and agreed to support its continued use as an LGBT venue.

Reasons for LGBT venue closures

2% became a different LGBTQ+ venue.

30% continued to operate, sometimes under a different name, as a non-LGBTQ+ specific venue.

21% influenced by development ,with 6% linked to large-scale transport infrastructure development and 12% to mixed-use or residential development.

6% of closed venues have been demolished, and 2% remain derelict following closure.

9% lease renegotiations, frequently featuring unfavourable terms or disproportionate rent increases.

6% business-related financial issues, including business rate increases and brewery price

5% licensing dispute or a license revoked.

2% due to a choice made by the owner/manager

25% no information available

10% of venue closures affected women’s or BAME-specific LGBTQ+ venues.

Source: LGBTQ+ Cultural Infrastructure in London: Night Venues, 2006–present

However, Lamé  identified the ‘agent of change’ principle as the tool that could be most effective at arresting closures - many of which are due to complaints from residents of new residential developments. The agent of change  makes it incumbent on the newcomer to an environment to make the necessary adaptations to that environment, not vice-versa. London’s draft night-time economy SPG has an entire chapter dedicated to agent of change.

“Lets build on agent of change principles,” said Lamé. “It’s coming into the London Plan. It was in the government’s housing white paper. It’s agreed upon across all political spectrum. If at all possible bring that into your plans.”

"Put culture front and centre of your thinking when considering planning applications"

The former broadcaster and Mayor of Camden went on to share her own five point plan for ‘pubcos’ and planners to follow to protect LGBTQ+ venues specifically:

  1. A rainbow flag should be displayed on the side of the venue
  2. It should be marketed as an LGBT venue
  3. It will provide a welcoming and safe environment  for all
  4. Management and staff should be LGBT-friendly
  5. Programming should be LGBT-focused.

“It’s voluntary,” she conceded. “However, if included in a 106 agreement it has the potential to become legally enforceable…”

Lamé finished by urging the audience to “put culture at the front and centre of your thinking when considering planning applications. Does the application impact our pre-existing cultural infrastructure? Or does it create new cultural infrastructure? I urge you to help us to make London have the most diverse and vibrant nightscape in the world.”

Read more:

UCL report: LGBTQ+ Cultural Infrastructure in London: Night Venues, 2006–present (pdf)

Draft SPG for London – Culture and the night-time economy (pdf)

Photo - Royal Vauxhall Tavern | Mike Quinn

Photo - Amy Lamé | Michael Chapman