Could This Anti-Developer Model Be the Best Way to Save London's Gay Venues?
A campaign to save the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is trying to raise enough money to buy out the property developers, and has applied for a special status that would protect it as an LGBTQ venue.
Inside the RVT (Photos courtesy of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern)
The capital's nightlife is so fragile these days that Mayor Sadiq Khan has, today, appointed Amy Lamé as its so-called "Night Czar" in an attempt "to shape London's future as a 24-hour city". The closure of Fabric has finally made politicians in City Hall realise that the decimation of the nighttime economy might be a bad thing – it's just a shame that realisation came too late for other, smaller venues – like Plastic People, Dance Tunnel, Passing Clouds, People's Nightclub, the Buffalo Bar and so many others – that have shut down over the last couple of years.
London's once-sprawling LGBTQ+ scene is part of the purge. According to one gay website, over 130 of London's queer venues, including Camden's drag mecca The Black Cap and Shoreditch's much-loved The Joiner's Arms, have shut up shop since the year 2000.
News reports and think-pieces are quick to blame the rise of dating apps like Grindr and Tinder for the cull. But it's a reductive excuse that presumes gay people only go out to have sex. It's certainly not what now threatens the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT), a thriving London LGBTQ+ venue that's been serving the queer community for around 70 years. In July, the company's chief executive James Lindsay reported "the highest level of trading in the venue's history". And its reputation speaks for itself – Jennifer Saunders chose it as the location for a gay club scene in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.
In 2014, the building was sold to Austrian developer Immovate. It's unclear what it is planning to do with the venue, but a quick look at its website reveals a proud portfolio of upscale offices and luxury flats. "We think they saw it as a development opportunity in the same way that loads of others have been seeing development opportunities all over London," says Rob Holley of the RVT Future campaign. This 15-strong committee of performers, punters and promoters – previously led by Amy Lamé – has been fighting to secure the building's future as an LGBTQ+ venue for over two years.
In 2015, the venue was the first LGBTQ+ of its kind to be granted Grade II listed building status, and was declared an Asset of Community Value. But that only protects the building itself, not its use – so while Immovate can't turn it into luxury flats, they could sell it on for a quick profit to a pub chain. VICE's repeated requests to speak to someone an Immovate representative have been ignored.
RVT Future has campaigned to make the pub "the world's worst development opportunity" for Immovate, says Rob. The committee has mastered the intricacies of planning law in order to "put in place hurdle after hurdle after hurdle" to prevent it from being turned into anything other than an LGBTQ+ venue.
At the time of writing, RVT Future are waiting to find out whether or not Lambeth Council has approved its application for an extra level of protection known as a "sui generis" listing, which would specify how the building has to be used – an effort Sadiq Khan has thrown his weight behind. The campaign's ideal outcome would be for the council to grant the venue a LGBTQ-specific sui generis listing, which would mean it can only be used for LGBTQ+ drinking, dancing and performance nights – much like it is now.
In the 80s Freddie Mercury apparently sneaked Princess Di in there disguised as a man.
Amy Lamé has now stepped down as chair of RVT Future to focus on her new night czar role – a well-earned appointment by the mayor, given her historical championing of London's nightlife. She's the co-promoter of the RVT's enduringly popular Saturday night party Duckie, which has now been going for 21 years. When I spoke to her last week, she pointed out that the purpose of the sui generis listing is protective rather than prescriptive. "We're not trying to legislate as to who can use the Tavern. I always say everyone's welcome, no matter what your sexuality is – just don't wear nice shoes because I'm not interested in your dry cleaning bills," she said. "We're just trying to preserve the Tavern's unique history."
And this history is genuinely remarkable – in the 1980s, the story goes, Freddie Mercury supposedly snuck Princess Di in there disguised as a man, and it remained a place of comfort for the LGBTQ+ community during the AIDS crisis, when Paul O'Grady regularly performed there as his drag alter ego Lily Savage.
"You really have to try and imagine a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence and gay men were regularly being put in prison merely for being themselves," said Lamé. "The fact that a place like the RVT existed where they could go and be themselves is no small miracle. But it's not just this historical place; it's a place where people meet week in, week out – it's a community pub. And one of the great things about being part of the LGBT community is we are non-geographical. The RVT is like everyone's gay neighbourhood pub, in a way. We get people from all over the world who come in and say, 'I've not been here for a couple of years, but it's so nice to come back and see some familiar faces.'"
The next step of RVT Future's campaign to save the venue is its most ambitious yet. The committee has hired a project manager and is putting together a plan for what it believes is "the UK's biggest ever community buy-out". A full fundraising campaign will be announced later this month, but in the meantime, Lamé said, "We're asking for major donors who want to be involved in our slice of LGBT history to step forward and say, 'Here I am, I wanna be part of the RVT army and help you out.'"
Ironically, this will mean negotiating with Immovate. "The ball is in their court," says Rob. Launching a community buy-out bid which could cost millions of pounds may seem drastic, but at this stage in the campaign it's the only option. "As long as it's owned by someone else, whose interests are shareholders and investors, the RVT will always be under threat," Lamé explained. "There are always more profitable ways to make money than pulling pints for poofs. But that doesn't mean the value of what we do doesn't exist. Yes, you could make more money turning the RVT into flats or a little supermarket, but why? How many lives are linked to the Tavern? It's so important that we protect this space for future generations."
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