By Ben Walters, Thursday July 6 2017, 10:29am
The number of LGBTQ+ venues operating in London has fallen from 125 in 2006 to 53 in 2017 – a decline of 58% – according to a new report from University College London Urban Laboratory published today.
The report finds that closures are widely connected to profit-driven property development and are experienced as a damaging aspect of growing inequality in London.
Some LGBTQ+ community members feel pushed “back in the closet” by the trend, says the report.
Main drivers of closure were identified as conversion to straight venues (30%) and closure for redevelopment (21%). Rent hikes were associated with 9%.
The report was compiled by Ben Campkin and Laura Marshall of UCL Urban Laboratory, with support from the Greater London Authority and Queer Spaces Network (of which I am a member).
In response, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has announced steps to try to reverse the trend, including an LGBT+ Venues Charter.
Closures harm the LGBTQ+ community
The research included a survey of 239 LGBTQ+ people, which revealed strong community belief in the ongoing need for dedicated LGBTQ+ venues.
Reasons cited include the need for safer spaces at a time of rising hate crime, the need for community venues where people can express themselves freely, and the desire to see and take part in alternative culture.
Most respondents rejected the idea that digital social platforms adequately replace real-life socialisation, and many expressed a preference for non-commercial venues.
Closures have strong negative emotional consequences for community members, including feelings of anxiety, ostracisation and being pushed “back into the closet”. Given LGBTQ+ Londoners’ acute vulnerability to mental ill health, research into the impact of venue closures on mental health would be welcome.
Decline in LGBTQ+ venues greater than other nightlife spaces
The figures show that with a closure rate of 58%, LGBTQ+ venues are even worse affected than other nightlife spaces vulnerable to closure.
By comparison, 44% of UK nightclubs shut between 2005 and 2015, 35% of London grassroots music venues closed between 2007 and 2016, and 25% of UK pubs closed between 2001 and 2016. (Figures from Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, Music Venue Trust and Inter-Departmental Business Register respectively.)
Most vulnerable groups are hardest hit
The report highlights that venue closures disproportionately affect those already underrepresented within the LGBTQ+ scene.
This includes women, trans people and people of colour. Very few venues cater specifically for these groups yet they often face challenges, prejudice and hostility in venues mainly catering to cisgender gay white men.
Others who are relatively poorly served within the existing scene include older people, disabled people, people with less money and people who don’t drink alcohol.
Desire for evolution
The UCL Urban Lab report shows that LGBTQ+ people have been consistently enterprising in their conversion of pre-existing space to LGBTQ+ use and their creation of LGBTQ+ events in spaces that are not usually put to LGBTQ+ use.
It also finds that there is a wide community appetite for new forms of LGBTQ+ venue to emerge but this is challenging in London today.
As well as high property values, obstacles to evolution and experimentation include changes to council planning priorities, changes to licensing procedures, and asymmetric relations between owners and users of valuable urban space in London.
Many LGBTQ+ community members express a desire for a dedicated London LGBTQ+ community centre comparable to those in other world cities such as Berlin, Paris and New York.
Paths to change
There’s nothing inevitable about this situation.
The report recommends actions including: new recognition and protection of LGBTQ+ spaces in the Mayor’s London Plan and at council level; changes to problematic licensing, policing and rent issues; designation of remaining pre-1986 LGBTQ+ spaces as Legacy Venues with special protections; and support for a dedicated LGBTQ+ community space.
Putting the UCL report to one side, it’s also notable that community campaigns around beloved venues have demonstrated that resistance is possible.
RVT Future continues to push for the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to be brought into community ownership following its sale to property developers in 2014, after securing various protections for the venue.
The Black Cap Foundation has seen off repeated attempts to convert the iconic Camden pub to straight use and continues negotiating with the owners to reopen it as an LGBTQ+ venue following its closure in 2015.
And Friends of the Joiners Arms continues to work with the developers who closed the pub in 2015 to open a successor venue.
Pledges from the Mayor
In response to the UCL report, Mayor Sadiq Khan announced several steps aimed at reversing the trend.
These include an LGBT+ Venues Charter encouraging owners and developers to commit to maintaining venues’ LGBT+ status. Pledges include displaying a rainbow flag, and having LGBT-friendly staff and LGBT-focused programming and marketing.
Khan also called for an annual audit to track openings and closures, and attention to the problem in key municipal planning documents such as the Cultural Infrastructure Plan.
Khan has been working on the issue with Night Czar Amy Lamé following consultation with Queer Spaces Network and other community groups and charities including UK Black Pride and Stonewall.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for LGBT+ venues to exist, and as difficult as possible for them to close,” Khan said.
More by Ben Walters on the threat to queer spaces: