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Idea Exchange: We’re the first council to use planning powers to save an LGBT venue

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The Joiners’ Arms was a pub and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) venue in Tower Hamlets, situated on Hackney Road not far from Shoreditch.  

It opened in 1997 and counted Alexander McQueen, Rufus Wainwright and Sir Ian McKellen among its regulars.

The pub was sold to Regal Homes in 2014, which closed it in 2015 to make way for redevelopment. Around the same time, the Friends of the Joiners’ Arms, a pressure group, was successful in its nomination to have the pub designated as an asset of community value (ACV).

Regal Homes began pre-application discussions with Tower Hamlets LBC on a comprehensive mixed-use development of the urban block that contained the Joiners’ Arms along with other former shops, businesses and warehouse buildings that had started to fall into disrepair.

Over time the proposals evolved from a plan for a residential scheme to one led by employment space, recognising the growing demand for space from the tech and creative sectors in East London. The scheme also became more heritage-led, retaining far more of the important fabric within the conservation area.

Regal Homes submitted a planning application for workspace, shops and nine flats in February 2017. Whilst the original Joiners’ Arms would be demolished, the application contained space for a new public house on the ground floor of the development.

The council has policies to protect public houses, but planning does not normally concern itself with the character of a pub or who uses it. However, this case presented an interesting link between the conventional planning considerations and the council’s equalities duty.

The Friends campaigned on the grounds that simply replacing the floor space would not address the issue of the loss of an important LGBT venue and asset of community value in a borough where there had been a sharp decline in similar venues.

The planning team was keen to explore how the cultural use of the venue could be maintained through the redevelopment process. The mayor of London’s night czar, Amy Lamé, chaired a meeting between the community group and the developers initiated by officers of the borough to help built trust and mediate a positive resolution in terms of establishing a new public house serving the LGBT community.

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs (Lab) and cabinet members Rachel Blake (Lab) and Joshua Peck (Lab) were also keen to see how the planning process could be used creatively to secure a positive outcome for the Joiners’ Arms and start to reverse the decline in LGBT venues.

A package was developed that included an initial period of 12 months in which the developer would actively seek an LGBT operator for the replacement pub. This would be secured through a planning obligation in a section 106 agreement. The application was reported to the council’s development committee in August 2017.

Committee members supported the principle of redevelopment and welcomed the approach, which pushed the boundaries of conventional town planning. However, the committee heard concerns from the Friends and representations from the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), which suggested it may not have been viable for a community group or independent operator to run a new pub without further assistance; that the layout didn’t include sufficient space for storage; and that the 12-month period for finding an LGBT operator may be too short. There were also concerns that conditions recommended by officers to control opening hours would prohibit the new venue from operating in the way that patrons had enjoyed over the last 15 years.

The committee deferred the application for further negotiations. A meeting between the council, the developer and the Friends resulted in an enhanced package being developed. This established a longer period of 24 months to seek an operator, and the size of the new unit was increased to allow enough storage space to operate a viable pub. Regal Homes will provide a rent-free agreement of 12 months and a contribution of £130,000 for the operator, to help mitigate the impact of the fit-out costs. The council engaged a noise specialist to look at how the new venue could operate later hours without causing harm to people living nearby. A range of planning conditions covering detailed design, noise control and management were drawn up and agreed with the developer.

The application was reported back to the development committee in October, which voted unanimously to grant permission, on the basis of the amended package to secure an LGBT operator and the late-night opening arrangements.

The Joiners’ Arms has been a fascinating case study into how the council’s planning responsibilities and equalities duties overlapped on a site with an enormous amount of community interest. A collaborative approach and willingness on the part of the developer to look at creative solutions along with the spirited campaigning of the Friends led to a positive outcome that all parties could sign up to. The Joiners’ Arms may be a helpful learning tool for other situations where LGBT venues are affected by redevelopment.

Gareth Gwynne, team leader - west team, development management, Tower Hamlets LBC

Picture credit: Ewan Munro

 

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