Black Cap saved from redevelopment… for now

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Plans for redevelopment of the Black Cap have been rejected by Camden Council

Plans for redevelopment of the Black Cap have been rejected by Camden Council

Camden Council has rejected a plan to redevelop the Black Cap that would have destroyed the first-floor bar and terrace of the iconic LGBT pub and cabaret space and led to the “death” of the venue.

At a public meeting last night (Thursday February 12 2015), the council’s development control committee unanimously refused planning permission for a scheme from the pub’s owner, Faucet Inn, which would have seen the building’s first, second and third floors converted into three flats.

“The proposal is almost crackers, really,” said Councillor Adam Harrison. “I’m not convinced by the evidence.”

The committee expressed concerns that the plans, if implemented, would result in:

• the loss of a unique community space
• damage to Camden’s culture and heritage
• unacceptable noise levels in the proposed new flats
• a threat to the pub’s longterm commercial viability

Noting the restrictions on amplified sound required by the plans, Councillor Danny Beales suggested that “a club without bass or loud noise isn’t much of a club”. It would, he said, mean “the death of this nightclub”.

Leader of the Council Sarah Hayward spoke in support of the Black Cap as a “vital asset for a community that still sadly suffers discrimination”. She noted that 86 homophobic attacks were reported in Camden in 2014, a 37% rise in one year. Deputy Leader Pat Callaghan also spoke in support of the venue.

I was one of three members of the public to oppose the plans at the meeting, speaking alongside Terence Bevington and Colin Leadbeatter.

Bevington, a longtime Camden resident and foster carer for LGBT youth, spoke about the impact the plans would have on the local community. Leadbeatter, an expert in local planning, spoke about how the proposal flew in the face of the borough’s own stated priorities. And I spoke about the Black Cap’s unique place in London’s LGBT history and culture.

Nigel Harris of Camden LGBT Forum made the case for preserving the pub to committee members in advance, and submitted an application (still pending) to have the Black Cap recognised as an asset of community value (ACV).

ACV status offers some protection against changes of use, and gives the community the right to bid if a property is put up for sale. The Black Cap was granted ACV status in 2013 after a campaign led by Spike Rhodes. But the pub’s owners got the designation overturned on procedural grounds, leaving it more vulnerable to redevelopment schemes like the one just defeated.

Unique past
Dubbed ‘the Palladium of Drag’, the Black Cap has been an LGBT pub and cabaret space for more than 50 years – since before gay sex was decriminalised in 1967. The only London venue with a longer pedigree is the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, whose own future is in doubt following its sale last year to property developers.

The Shufflewick Bar and Regina Fong Terrace occupy the Black Cap’s first floor and opened in the mid-1990s. Their loss would have removed one of the only spaces in the area for quiet socialising and community meetings.

The bar and terrace are also the only spaces in London, to my knowledge, named after drag performers. They honour the iconic Mrs Shufflewick (Rex Jameson) and Regina Fong (Reg Bundy) for their artistry, and their community and charity work.

No one representing Faucet Inn attended last night’s meeting to defend the plan. The company has not issued any public statement justifying its proposed scheme.

The plan’s rejection is welcome not only because it takes the bar and terrace off the chopping block – for now – but also because it proves that when property development threatens independent cultural spaces, the result is not a foregone conclusion.

Uncertain future
The future of the Black Cap is still far from secure, however. The owners might appeal against the council’s decision, as they did when their previous attempts to turn upper storeys of the venue into flats were knocked back in 2012 and 2013. Or they might decide to sell the property to the highest bidder.

The preferred outcome would be that the pub’s owners now decide to work with all those who have a stake in the Black Cap – from punters and community groups to performers and employees – to try to plan a future for the venue that meets everyone’s needs.

But for that to happen, those who cherish the venue must get active and engaged, holding the owners to account and making their love for the space known.

Like all sites of queer and independent culture in central London, the Black Cap remains acutely vulnerable to profiteering redevelopment and will only survive if those who truly care about it inform themselves about the situation and step up to defend it on their own terms.

Last night’s result showed that when people come together and act, redevelopment plans can be faced down. We won this battle. But to win the war for London’s soul, we need sustained, committed action from large numbers of people – people who believe this city is about more than the bottom line.

UPDATE: A video of the council proceedings can be viewed here – discussion of the Black Cap runs from 0:07:44 to 1:07:44, with Terence’s, Colin’s and my contributions between 0:19:20 and 0:24:46.