The battle for Backstreet


Submitted by Nigel Whitfield, 17 February 2017



Last night, at a meeting of the Tower Hamlets Strategic Development Committee, the future of London's only leather bar was secured - for the time being at least.

The proposal

Backstreet is the only part of a large building that's still in use. It occupies the back of a larger club building, which has been a nightclub since at least the 1920s. In recent years, the other part of the building has been through various incarnations, before being finally closed down around 2011 as a result of a murder on the premises.

For longer than that, the site has actually been owned by a property developer. They last put foward a plan to redevelop in 2007, for an even taller tower, which was rejected. After that, things went quiet, until the autumn of 2013, when a presentation was made to local residents, for a fifteen storey tower, with stepped sections, in an attempt to reduce the bulk.

This was the proposal that was formally submitted in spring of last year, and to which we encouraged people to object - principally on the grounds that it was too large for the site, and would dominate the local area. Much as it may be tempting to say as an objection "You can't build this, my favourite gay bar will close," that's usually not in itself enough of a reason, so it was important to stress the other aspects.

Fortunately the area has many active local residents too, and groups including Friends of Mile End Park and the Mile End Old Town Residents Association also objected.

At the start of this year, revisions to the plans were submitted by the developer, and objectors were asked if we wanted to respond to them. It's clear from the revisions that they had realised people were concerned about the loss of the club - but in my opinion they paid only lip service to the idea. They suggested that there were other LGBT venues in the borough, and even that there were sometimes gay nights at Bethnal Green Working Mens Club, so there would be no substantial loss.

Recognising The Backstreet

I wrote about this on BLUF at the time, and encouraged people to follow up. In my own submission, I said that this line of argument failed to recognise the special nature of the club, and was like saying that knocking down an opera house is ok, because sometimes there's a singer at the Working Men's Club.

From the final notes on the application, it's clear that our arguments here were heard - although the recommendation was to accept the plans, the need to preserve or relocate The Backstreet clearly appears to have been accepted.

However - and the reason I didn't write about this before the meeting - the notes for councillors said that the owner of the club was seeking to cease trading, because of "age and ill-health", that a letter to that effect would be submitted, and that only in the absence of such a letter should a relocation strategy be required as part of the S106 agreement.

A S106 agreement is a set of conditions imposed on a developer, which can include things like contributions to local amenities, or relocation of businesses that will be affected. So, clearly the council officers accepted the special nature of the club, but the developer was suggesting John at Backstreet was ready to throw in the towel, and so no agreement would be needed.

The meeting

As one of the objectors, I received a letter a little while ago, informing me of the upcoming meeting, and offering the chance to speak in opposition. I registered as soon as I could, after verifying that the claims made regarding The Backstreet were not accurate. My aim was to make sure that if the proposal went through, a relocation strategy would be agreed, rather than brushed aside as not needed. That would not have been a total victory, but with the planning department recommending the go-ahead, I figured it would be better than losing the club and having nothing.

I wasn't the only person to register to speak, though I was the first. And so the planning team put me in touch with other objectors, to work out a plan for the meeting - there would usually be only a total of six minutes to speak.

After speaking with other objectors, and comparing notes, the plan was for me to speak for a minute, largely concerning the club, while another objector would have two minutes of the three, to address other issues.

My presentation

This is the text of the speech I gave in opposition at the meeting, though I diverged from the written words a couple of times.

The proposed development, it seems to me, fails in many ways. It is not just that it's too large, dominating the views of the park, and setting a precedent that could destroy Mile End. The design, it's claimed, "emphasizes verticality," which surely will only make it more of an eyesore.

But it fails in other ways too. There is provision for five accessible units, but only one on-site disabled parking space.

The affordable units are on the first four floors - where your report indicates NO2 levels are excessive; richer tenants literally rise above the pollution, while the rest will suffer each time they open a window. London certainly needs homes - but does it need homes with poisonous air? And can we even guarantee, if the works required by TFL prove expensive, that there will still be those affordable units?

This plan will add more retail space - but the recently built unit in Wentworth Mews remains empty. And there's little provision for the service access that successful retail will need, either.

I would like also to speak about The Backstreet club, which will be lost if this development goes ahead. It is a unique space for the gay community and has run for over thirty years, with no disturbance to the neighbours.

Speaking as someone who organises events there, there is no equivalent elsewhere in the UK, and very few in Europe. Events at The Backstreet attract visitors from many countries, as well as locals, and its loss would be a serious blow to a section of the LGBT community.

Contrary to assertions made by the applicant, the operator of the Backstreet is not seeking to cease trading. I hope the plan will be rejected, but if not, I urge you to insist upon a relocation strategy as part of the S106 agreement.

Question time

After all the opposition speakers had finished, we were questioned by the councillors. Questions included information about the capacity of the club; what the likely costs of relocation would be (I didn't know, but a new venue would not need a pretty view, at least); what the parking situation was like; and whether or not the owner was planning to cease trading.

On that last point, I made sure we got across that the club owner had not given any such undertaking, was present at the meeting, and able to confirm that. In essence, the absence of that statement meant that in accordance with their guidance from the planning office, a relocation strategy would be required.

Other public speakers in opposition included a local architect, with whom I'd previously agreed to split my time. As the first to register to speak, I was allowed to do that, and co-ordinated with him and with other campaigners, to ensure we got across all the necessary points. It's important to remember that the loss of amenity due to Backstreet closing would likely not have been sufficient to stop the development, especially if a relocation agreement was reached.

But there were many other good reasons to object - and allowing an architect to speak about some of them seemed to me like a good idea, as he was able to speak with more authority on those. In particular, the requirement for tall buildings to be of exceptional quality, if they are to justify their existence - and in his view, this one certainly doesn't.

The third speaker was a local resident, who was concerned about shadowing of her garden, and the lack of consultation. By agreement, we each took two minutes to speak. (The original plan would have been one minute for me, two for the architect, and three for the third objector).

There were also two councillors speaking against the proposal from the floor, which doubtless helped our case; one of them disclosed his interest as a Backstreet regular.

A word from the developer

After questions to the opposition, those in favour spoke. The team from the developer explained the options, and attempted to put the best possible gloss on their plans. In the course of that, they stated that they were committed to covering the relocation of Backstreet and that the club would get at least twelve months notice, from the date of approval of the application.

The first half of this presentation did sound quite impressive, and covered many topics; but the second and third speakers weren't as well briefed. In fact, it turned out that none of the people involved had been on the project since the start, leaving them unable to answer questions about what changes, if any, had been made as a result of the public consultation back in 2013.

After the developer came the planning officers, explaining the reasons for their recommendation, and walking people through the plans, before taking questions, after which the matter went to a vote.

We honestly had no idea which way things would go, but with the first councillor to sum up, we had a positive sign. Representing Canary Wharf, he said he had come to the meeting expecting to approve it, but would now be voting against. Other councillors made similar remarks. A few referenced the club, including questions as to why it could not have been incorporated into the design, given that it has not caused any trouble in over 30 years.

The recommendation to approve the plans was defeated, by six votes to 0. A motion to formally reject was then proposed, and won, by the same margin.

Chief among the concerns expressed was the size of the building; issues surrounding air quality; the lack of parking and service access; the possibility of the works over the underground causing damage or affecting viability; the amount of consultation with residents.

What happens next?

An official refusal will be drawn up, and presented at the next meeting of the committee. That's just a formality, to ensure everything is explained in the proper way. It's possible, of course, that the developer will appeal against the decision. However, the feeling after the meeting last night is that that is not likely to be successful. That's due to the firmness of the refusal - it was a unanimous vote, not a tiny margin - and the number of grounds on which the councillors refused.

More likely is that revised plans will be drawn up, probably reducing the height still further, and attempting to address some of the other concerns raised. Perhaps they'll even include a new nightclub in the basement. Who knows? We can only wait and see.

So, Backstreet's future is secure for the immediate future. Later, perhaps we'll have to go through all this again. When we do, however, we know that we have already established that the club caters for a specific audience, deserving of protection. It's not "just another LGBT venue" whose events can be shifted elsewhere.

In addition, the developer has given undertakings about relocation and notice periods. They said there will be at least a year between the granting of planning permission, and the requirement for vacant possession. That was of course said about this application, but it's hard to see how they could renege on it for a future one without running the risk of looking as if they were punishing the club for being part of the successful objection.

Also important is the commitment to cover costs such as agency fees, as part of a "relocation strategy." It will likely be hard to wriggle out of that in future, too. The amount, as yet unspecified, may not be sufficient, but it will be at least a start, and the mood of the council was clear that there will have to be a strategy as part of the development.

What kind of day has it been?

It's been a good day. We've saved the club for now - and just as important, we've learned that it is possible to save venues like this, and to have their uniqueness recognised. Writing letters and expressing objections really does help, and so does turning up in person.

Many thanks to all those who sent in objections, and particular thanks to the local residents who turned up at the meeting, and whose comments helped me formulate my own address to the committee.

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