The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is now officially too important to be considered simply as an asset to be sweated. The fight is now on to show that the free market should not always be totally free, and that there are more important measures of success than simply profit.
Last week we heard the fantastic news that the Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been listed by Historic England after a strong campaign by RVT future, supported by the local Labour Party, the Local Councillors, Lambeth Council and a broad community right across London, as well as right here in Vauxhall.
Amazingly the RVT is the first building to have ever been listed for its cultural significance for the LGBT community. EVER! And this shows how far the movement has come. It also shows a remarkable shift that the Tory Government didn’t bat an eyelid in listing it (no rumours of trying to oppose it came through via any channels to be me) so credit where it is due.
However its future is by no means secure and the fight to retain this iconic establishment as a living, breathing and working temple of fun will continue. As we have seen from various venues across London, there are simply not enough safeguards to protect sites against developers wishing to make huge profits at the expense of everything else. The Black Cap has huge ‘development potential as a residential site’ and the owners need only mothball the venue for a year to demonstrate it is ‘economically unviable as a business’ in order to change its use in planning terms and thereby give themselves a free run at building flats for sale at exorbitant prices. Residential development is now so profitable in part because the Tory Government have enshrined the right for housing developers to make 20% profit before things like affordable housing have to be considered.
Things for the RVT are slightly different but we are still at the mercy of the free (and becoming freer under the Tories) market. The Council owns the land around the RVT and thus it would need their consent for a large residential block to be developed. I’m pretty confident that for as long as Labour runs Lambeth, this will never be granted. The Council have also made the RVT an ‘asset of community value’ which means that should the site go up for sale, a community group must be allowed the time to fundraiser and bid. It also means that developers can’t simply open a wine bar or turn it into a Tesco metro, as the RVT is recognised as a leading cabaret venue. Sadly however the legislation remains a bit of a fig leaf, as there is no requirement to actually sell to the community group even if they do manage to raise the money. As with so much Tory policy, it’s a nice headline but the power and rights still remain with big business and big money.
The actual running of the RVT is also at issue and reading this recent interview in Boyz with the current RVT management who are working with the Austrian developers, the same management who sold the building to developers, you can see that the pressure is now coming to demonstrate that the RVT is not economically viable. Whether this is really the case, or whether this is the early ‘evidencing’ in order to change use, change planning and build flats regardless is anyone’s guess and the more cynical amongst us see quite clearly the tactics being displayed. Local campaigners are now lobbying Boyz to get the other side of the story in order to provide some balance.
There is lots of talk at the moment about where the Labour Party sits on the political spectrum, but this principle is above party politics, beyond left and right. Some things are too important to be left to the free market, and the pursuit of profit should not be overwhelming in all cases. If the developers and the management do not feel they can make enough margin from redevelopment, or enough money running the RVT which remains closed much of the week, then they should sell back to the community and let them see whether they can run it as a community asset with a new business model not based on profit. Youth clubs and community centres generally do not run at a profit but that doesn’t mean they have no value. The RVT is more than just a business as Historic England have now formally recognised. Its value is social as well as economic. There must be a balance between the two.
There is also a lesson here for Councils such as Lambeth, who sold the property years ago for an absolute song. The ownership of land and buildings are the ‘means of production’ these days, certainly here in central London right by the Thames. Therefore the things communities value must be protected and enshrined so however the world or society changes, those commitments and protections remain. Once something is built and sold that’s it, and the RVT as an anchor in Vauxhall for the LGBT community, as well as its importance for the LBGT business community is too important to lose. We must fight, because once the RVT goes then the scene could go with it.