A night out at the Joiners Arms shortly before its closure. Photograph: Dosfotos/REX/Shutterstock
Councillors have rejected plans for the redevelopment of the Joiners Arms, an east London pub that has counted designer Alexander McQueen, singer Rufus Wainwright and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans among its clientele, amid concerns that protections for a new LGBT venue on the site do not go far enough to ensure the viability of a new queer space.
Marc Francis, chair of Tower Hamlets council's development committee, told developer Regal Homes on Wednesday that its plans had failed to win approval because not enough had been done to ensure that a new LGBT bar would thrive amid the development of offices and luxury flats.
Francis said the council welcomed Regal's ground-breaking planning proviso to ensure that an LGBT operator had first refusal to rent the space for 12 years, but said: "I'm not persuaded that this goes far enough."
Over the past decade, London has lost 58% of its LGBT venues as their prime locations have been snapped up by developers, and some clubgoers have abandoned nights out for Grindr, Tinder and other "hookup" apps. Eleven London boroughs, including Harringay and Kensington and Chelsea, have lost all their LGBT bars. Tower Hamlets has lost seven of its 10 LGBT venues since 2006.
Campaigners, who attended the council meeting in T-shirts reading "Long live queer spaces" under rainbow umbrellas, welcomed the council's decision as a victory for "queer power" and hoped that the developer would meet their demands for a larger, better-equipped venue with a later licence and outdoor smoking area.
In an emotional speech, Amy Roberts, co-chair of the Friends of the Joiners Arms campaign group, told the committee that she was campaigning for the Joiners as it was one of few places in London were she felt safe enough to kiss another woman without fear of attack.
"There was an immense feeling of liberation in [the Joiners Arms]," She said. "On nights in non-queers spaces I've had pictures taken of me while making out with another woman."
Roberts said Regal's proposals for a single-level bar closing at half past midnight at weekends was "not a viable replacement for east London’s most iconic LGBT venue". She said the developers' offer to give first refusal for the tenancy to an LGBT operator for the first 12 years was "nothing more than a Trojan horse draped in a rainbow flag".
Under pressure from the Tower Hamlets council and the mayor of London, the developer had written into its planning application that the development would include a pub that would "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 target clientele has been included as a condition of planning approval.
Roberts welcomed the council's decision to defer the planning decision for a month while they sought further reassurances from the developers. "So many of the spaces where we feel safe have been closed down and taken away from us," she said. "We need to fight to protect them, and I'm so pleased that the council has listened to our concerns. I've been violently attacked, and I couldn't count how many times I've been verbally attacked in the street, which I'm sure is true for all people who don't look straight walking down the street."
Councillors were concerned that the developers proposed to lease the space as a bare shell without bar facilities or toilets and worried that refurbishing costs might make taking on the venture too prohibitively expensive for a community-run gay bar.
Councillor Chris Chapman, who told the meeting he had also suffered homophobic attacks in the capital, called on the developer to help meet the costs of fitting out the bar. A spokesman for Regal Homes indicated that the developer would consider helping with the costs, and had already offered to let the space rent-free for the first year.
A spokesperson for Regal said in a statement: "We fully acknowledge the council's decision and look forward to working with them and the LGBTQI+ parties to ensure the ultimate success of this scheme for all."
Campaigners, who held placards outside the town hall reading "All the fun happens after midnight", were also concerned that the proposed venue would stay open only until half past midnight. The Joiners Arms, which was closed in 2015 shortly after Regal bought the Hackney Road site, was open until 4am.
Peter Cragg, of the Friends of the Joiners Arms, said he was "pretty thrilled" that the council had listened to the campaigners concerns and not "told us what we want and just accepted the developers recommendations".
"Our demands are pretty radical, that it becomes a community-run space. I'd love to see the Joiners Arms back on Hackney Road as it was and as it should be, not a wine bar that closes at half-midnight."
The Joiners, which was opened as a gay bar by landlord David Pollard in May 1997, quickly became an east London institution. Pollard said the purpose of Joiners was to provide a space for "joyful sinners".
"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," he told i-D magazine.
Many regulars were leading lights of fashion, music and the arts. They included 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.