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London Council Calls Gay Fetish Club 'Important'

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A London borough has rejected a proposed housing development so that The Backstreet, a leather and kink bar, can remain in its current home.

The council in Tower Hamlets voted to block plans to convert The Backstreet, a more than 30-year-old institution in London’s fetish community, into a 12-story residential tower. Noting the venue’s importance, Deputy Mayor Rachel Blake called the bar “an important community asset.” 

“It is the last true gay fetish club,” The Guardian quoted Blake as saying. “It is very important to have safe spaces for the whole community.”

The rejection of the new development comes as the culmination of a six-year approval process, during which locals spoke and wrote passionately about the club’s importance in their lives. Describing an atmosphere of whips and boots, one patron told The Guardian, “It’s a real time warp that hasn’t been updated since the 80s. … I know that I’m not going to be heckled for what I wear and what I do, which might happen in a regular gay venue.”

Opened in the mid-1980s, The Backstreet boasts one of the strictest dress codes in Europe, and occupies a prominent position in the local nightlife economy. But like many major cities, London has seen its share of LGBTQ+ clubs shrink in recent years. The borough of Tower Hamlets alone has lost 73 percent of LGBTQ+ venues since 2006, Blake said. 

This is the second time that an imperiled queer bar has complicated construction in Tower Hamlets. In 2017, when a proposed development threatened the Joiners Arms, the council required developers to include a similarly-sized gay bar in the new construction. Developer Galliard Homes had said that The Backstreet could operate in the basement of the new building and pledged £22,500 to move and store the club’s collection of fetish gear. But that solution wasn’t considered feasible for The Backstreet. 

With residential units on top, Blake said, noise complaints would be likely. Those complaints could lead to the closing of the venue. What’s more, planning inspector Julia Gregory said, future residents with children might object to the presence of the bar. Patrons also objected to a possible loss of smoking areas.

Developers may present alternate plans to adapt the site. The previous planning process took about six years to reach this point, and future plans would likely need to start from scratch on a similar timeline. In the meantime, the population of Tower Hamlets is expected to grow by 50,000 in the next 10 years.

The borough is currently experiencing a housing crisis, according to Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs. According to British housing advocacy group “akt,” 24 percent of homeless youth in the U.K. identify as LGBTQ+. In Tower Hamlets, the average cost to rent a flat is more than the average household income, with around 2,000 families in temporary housing and 18,000 on a waitlist.

The proposed development would have included 35 percent affordable housing, part of a local campaign to add 2,000 units by 2022.

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