A night out at the Joiners Arms shortly before its closure. Photograph: Dosfotos/REX/Shutterstock
Gay bars in London are closing down at such an "alarming" rate that the redevelopment of the Joiners Arms, an east London pub that counted Alexander McQueen, Rufus Wainwright and Wolfgang Tillmans among its regulars, will only get the go-ahead if it includes an LGBT club venue – and the mayor's office will send an inspector to make sure it is gay enough.
Tower Hamlets council has told the developers of the Joiners site that their plans for offices and nine luxury flats will get planning permission only if it includes a pub that will "remain a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-focused venue for a minimum of 12 years". It is believed to be the first time that the sexual orientation of a venue's customers has been included as a condition of planning approval.
The borough's mayor, John Biggs, said: "Tower Hamlets council is committed to celebrating our great diversity, which includes serving the needs of our LGBTQ+ community. I am delighted that as a council we are leading the way in using innovative ways to protect spaces such as the Joiners Arms site."
City Hall's culture at risk officer, Ed Bayes, will be involved in assessing licensee applications to ensure that the operator of the new bar will be sufficiently LGBT, and not seeking to open a gay bar in name only.
Over the past decade London has lost 58% of its LGBT venues as their prime locations are snapped up by developers for regeneration and clubgoers abandon nights out for the convenience of Grindr, Tinder and other hookup apps. Eleven London boroughs, including Haringey, and Kensington and Chelsea, have lost all their LGBT bars.
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has demanded that urgent action is taken to halt the "shocking" decline of LGBT bars, which he said were vital for the city's economy and diversity. Khan's office is pushing planners to do more to ensure that LGBT venues are protected from housing developments, which has led to the closure of several well-known bars in central and east London, including the Black Cap in Camden, The Queen's Head in Chelsea and the Joiners in Tower Hamlets.
Councillors for Tower Hamlets, which has lost seven of its 10 LGBT venues since 2006, are scheduled to vote on the redevelopment plans for the Joiners site on Hackney Road on Wednesday night. The developer, Regal Homes, which bought the site in 2014, a year before the venue's closure in 2015, is understood to have agreed to the council's demands to give an LGBT operator first refusal on the lease.
A spokesperson for Regal Homes said: "The development on Hackney Road will re-provide a public house at ground-floor level with the same floor space as the previous Joiners Arms pub. We are committed to keeping this space within our development in Tower Hamlets as a LGBT+ venue and have offered a right of first refusal on the lease to LGBT+ interested parties, including the Friends of the Joiners Arms and the New Joiners Arms.
"If the lease is taken up by an interested party then the venue will be secured for at least 12 years for LGBT+ use. We have also agreed a rent-free period for the first year. We have met on numerous occasions with the Friends of the Joiners Arms, the New Joiners Arms and with the mayor's night tsar, Amy Lamé, to discuss the future of an LGBT+ venue at our development and fully endorse the LGBT+ venues charter."
The intervention from Tower Hamlets council and City Hall came after a spirited campaign by the bars' regulars, who formed the Friends of the Joiners Arms pressure group.
"I hold LGBT+ venues in very high regard and have made it clear that protecting them is an integral part of my plans to grow London's night-time economy and culture," Khan said.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for LGBT+ venues to exist, and as difficult as possible for them to close. That is why I called for an annual audit of LGBT+ venues and, together with my night tsar Amy Lamé, we will do all we can to halt the closures of these precious venues and encourage others to open."
Lamé, who has also intervened to help preserve Soho venue Molly Moggs (which will soon reopen as cocktail bar Compton Cross) and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Lambeth, said: "I want to say loud and clear: if you own or visit an LGBT+ venue which you believe is in trouble, reach out to me before it's too late."
The Joiners, which was opened as a gay bar by landlord David Pollard shortly after Tony Blair's landslide election victory in May 1997, quickly became an east London institution. Pollard was committed to the fair treatment of his staff and the Joiners was the first pub in the country to sign up to paying its employees the living wage.
Paul Flynn, the author of Good As You: From Prejudice to Pride – 30 Years of Gay Britain and a Joiners regular, said the pub attracted a mixed, diverse and relaxed crowd because of its laid-back vibe that made it "a genuine meeting place for actual outsiders".
Flynee added: "It encouraged a reckless attitude from its patrons which was really exciting. It felt like the local council had nothing to do with it. That it has taken the council to step in and retain it as a gay space just tells you how severe the loss of gay spaces across London has become.
"They are closing because of simple economic factors and greed, with so much money being offered by developers. But the gay culture in the 2010s has changed a lot, too. Meeting people has dramatically changed with app culture, especially gay apps."
Flynn said it was great that the council had stepped in to retain the site as a gay space, but added: "You can’t legislate for a party to kick off like it did in the Joiners."
Many of Pollard's customers were leading lights of fashion, music and the arts. Among the regulars were the late fashion designer McQueen, singer-songwriters Wainwright and Patrick Wolf, designer Christopher Kane, actor Rupert Everett and former Westlife singer Mark Feehily.
Craig Green, who was named British menswear designer of the year in January, got one of his first jobs working behind the bar, and Turner prize-winning artist Tillmans was often seen documenting life in the bar with his camera.
The pub has been immortalised in Bloc Party's 2007 track On, which includes the line: "Hidden away in every locked toilet I've been waiting for you in the Joiners Arms." Kele Okereke, its frontman, was also often to be found at the bar's juke box or fruit machine.
"If you're trying to find anyone to remember stories of famous people or otherwise in the Joiners you'll have trouble," Flynn said. "Most people can't remember what happened. It was genuinely a bacchanal place."