Joiners Arms redevelopment must include LGBT nightclub, council rules

Decision by Tower Hamlets council thought to be first time the sexual orientation of a venue’s target market has been condition of planning approval

The redevelopment of a popular gay bar in east London into a complex of luxury apartments must include an LGBT club for at least 25 years, councillors have ruled, in a landmark decision designed to stem the “shocking” closure of gay venues in the UK.

Tower Hamlets council voted unanimously that the demolition of the Joiners Arms – which counted Alexander McQueen, Rufus Wainwright and Sir Ian McKellen among its regulars – could only go ahead if the development that replaced it contained a late-night LGBT venue.

The council’s unprecedented intervention – believed to be the first time the sexual orientation of a venue’s target market has been a condition of a planning approval – comes as research shows that London has lost 58% of its LGBT venues over the past decade.

Eleven London boroughs, including Harringay and Kensington and Chelsea, have lost all their LGBT bars, as their prime locations have been snapped up by developers, and some club goers have abandoned nights out for Grindr, Tinder and other hookup apps. Tower Hamlets has lost seven of its 10 LGBT venues since 2006.

Tower Hamlet council’s intervention followed a spirited campaign by former Joiners regulars, with backing from celebrities and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, who described the loss of the capital’s gay bars as shocking.

The council had previously dismissed developer Regal Homes’s promise to include a gay pub closing at midnight as not going far enough to replace the feel of the Joiners Arms. The revised plan, approved by the planning committee on Tuesday night, will allow the venue to maintain the late hours of the Joiners – 4am on Friday and Saturday nights.

Holding a placard reading “All the fun happens after midnight”, Peter Cragg, of the Friends of the Joiners Arms campaign group, said: “Planning officers initially wanted the venue to close at midnight on weekends and 11pm on weeknights,” he said. “But councillors shared our concerns that everything fun happens after midnight – and more seriously the late-night nature of the venue provided so much of the benefit to the community.

“We are pleased that the council and developers have agreed with us that the community needs a space to express ourselves, to drink, dance, love and learn.”

The venue’s former landlord, David Pollard, said that the Joiners “played (and continues to play) a huge part in the empowerment of the queer community”. Linking the decision to a surge in progressive politics, he said the decision was “yet another sign that things can, and will, change for the better if marginalised people continue to step up and fight for change.”

John Biggs, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “I am pleased that following consultation with the developers, the GLA and the Friends of the Joiners Arms, the development committee has granted planning permission for an LGBTQ+ venue at the site of the Joiners Arms.

“Tower Hamlets is leading the way in reversing the decline in LGBTQ+ venues which we have seen across London. As a council we want to celebrate the great diversity in the borough, and are committed to serving the needs of all our communities.”

As well as guaranteeing that the venue will be leased to an LGBTQ operator, Regal Homes has agreed to put £130,000 towards the fit-out costs, including sound proofing and the construction of a smoking area. The developer will also waive the first year’s rent.

Regal Homes said the campaign groups Friends of the Joiners Arms and the New Joiners Arms would have first refusal to run the bar themselves.

Cragg said the campaigners were looking forward to trying to recreate the bar where so many of them had had the best nights of their lives and found their partners. “This is a chance not just to replace a gay bar, but to create something led by the community for the community,” he said. “We’re not just offering to run a queer pub where you can get pissed, we want to have a community centre in there as well. We’d have events for the elderly as well, older LGBTQ people are just not catered for. London doesn’t have a queer community space, which is mad when you think about it.”

The Joiners opened as a gay bar in May 1997 and quickly became an east London institution, which David Pollard described as a place for “joyful sinners”. The pub on Hackney Road closed in 2015 shortly after Regal bought the site.

“If you want to enjoy yourself, come in. But we don’t want to know how important you are. Are you interesting to talk to? Are you a good shag? Can you dance? These are the questions we’re interested in as a pub,” Pollard told i-D magazine.

Many regulars were nevertheless leading lights of fashion, music and the arts including the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, singer-songwriters Rufus Wainwright and Patrick Wolf, designer Christopher Kane, actor Rupert Everett and Westlife’s Mark Feehily. Craig Green, the British menswear designer of the year, got one of his first jobs working behind the bar, and Turner-prize winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans was often seen documenting life in the bar with his camera.

Bloc Party’s frontman Kele Okereke was also a regular and he immortalised the pub in the band’s 2007 track On, which includes the line: “Hidden away in every locked toilet, I’ve been waiting for you in the Joiners Arms.”


Rupert Neate

The GuardianTramp

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