The nimby threat to London’s cultural landscape

Serial objectors often carry more weight than supporters of thriving local businesses. But does anyone really have ownership of the area they live in?

Derelict toilets - who would actually complain about their regeneration?

Derelict toilets – who would actually complain about their regeneration? Pic: Stephen Emms

Everyone likes to see their neighbourhood improving. A thriving, independent high street with busy pubs and a mixed community are all prized assets, as is the wealth of cultural options. That’s why we even live here at all, right?

Sure, none of us are immune to a good grumble. Living cheek-by-jowl with tens of thousands of others is never going to be idyllic. But over-objecting, the preserve of the infamous nimby, has the very real potential to damage all that’s good about living in a city. And it’s something that’s on the rise – everywhere.

So, what is a nimby? Coined in 1980, this acronym simply means “not in my back yard”, and refers to city-dwellers who see it as their mission to go about lodging complaints and blocking licences. The suburban zeal of a few such disproportionately powerful voices can make a decent stab at extinguishing flourishing cultural hotspots.

The Nimby and the Hipster
click and open the slideshow of the comic strip we commissioned for the cover of our April print edition

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But would anyone really still fight for such restriction if it also directly leads to boarded-up shops and rundown listed buildings? Apparently so.

Over recent weeks a curious saga has been playing out in Kentish Town over local lad William Borrell’s plans to turn derelict public conveniences into a subterranean cocktail lounge.

How the proposed upmarket cocktail bar looks today.

How the proposed upmarket cocktail bar has looked for two decades

The decaying toilets (main pic, and left), at the junction of Highgate and Fortess Road opposite the Forum, have been closed since the 90s. And yet objections being publicly lodged are mostly misplaced: “people hanging around smoking cause obstruction and noise”, “rowdiness and late night brawling”, “urinating”, “drunk people on the very corner of an extremely busy intersection, with bus routes on both sides”, “we need toilets, not bars” and “someone might run across the road without looking when buying cigarettes”.

All this from residents who already live next to The Forum – to someone pouring investment into an otherwise abandoned and grubby blot on the main drag. Isn’t it a knee-jerk over-reaction based on an outdated idea of debauched late night drinking?

Our area attracts many creative entrepreneurs who have correctly seen the opportunity to build successful businesses in retail units previously unloved for years. But for how long will they bother?

The historic Bull & Gate, re-opening currently uncertain due to complaints

The historic Bull & Gate: re-opening currently uncertain due to complaints

Just across the road from the toilets is the famous Bull and Gate, which sits empty into a second year over disagreements as to what is considered an appropriate refurbishment for its listed Victorian interior. There’s a real danger it might never open again, despite having Young’s, one of the UK’s most trusted breweries, keen to revitalise it with a £1.5 million spruce-up. (See box below to be kept up to date with their progress).

Meanwhile the highly sophisticated libations being concocted over at Shebeen, and promising classy neighbour Knowhere Special, suffer from clipped wings, with applications for later opening hours blocked.

Anyone who has actually witnessed the passion and attention to detail in both would attest that neither are going to turn out a drunken army of vomiting revellers. But still they endure censure from the vocal few, instead of praise for world-class innovation and financial injection to the area.

Meet the hosts: Dave Mulligan, Shebeen

Dave ShebeenTell us your story? I moved to Kentish Town and got lucky – spotting an ad to work on the concept for a new bar just down the street. I was gifted a bottle of illegal Irish Potin from my father for getting the place open, which lead to us becoming London’s leading specialists in the legal version of the drink.
Describe your bar? It’s an upmarket locals bar where people can come and relax with a good drink, away from the hustle and bustle of busy pubs.
What should we drink when we visit? Potin! Especially Ban – our very own brand. Let our educated bartenders be creative and do what they love to do, which is make you happy.
Message for locals? Please come down and see the bar before making judgements. We’re really nice, and this is a very relaxed kind of drinking, not a rowdy one.

More extreme and worrying is recent opposition to new student accommodation on Holmes Road, which only feels like the latest attempt to force a single worldview onto a postcode long celebrated for its diversity. Surely a range of ages is vital to the health and vitality of any locale?

Thanks goodness for a fresh – and yes, transient – student population here. They too, are not an invading army of youthful abandon and late night shouting. Geographical make-up is always changing. Look at the Victorian fears of Kentish Town going downmarket with the arrival of the railway. There was, of course, no golden era to which we should be trying to return.

So why are the scales terribly skewwhiff in favour of the UK’s nimbys today? Especially as it’s a power that can reach perverse levels if left unchecked, even more when wielded by the wealthy.

Yoga - a noisy urban menace?

Yoga – a noisy urban menace?

Witness the recent spat in leafy Primrose Hill, where a proposed quality bakery and pizzeria – the kind of business pretty much every high streets in the country would welcome with open arms – generated protests for being “another” pizza restaurant.

This is also where a grumpy neighbour has ensured by law that windows and blinds must remain closed at the famous Triyoga studios, because he doesn’t find the occasional sound of “ohm” being softly chanted to his liking.

And it’s not just the older crowd who are prone to crushing urban regeneration if they don’t like its soundtrack. A vibrant nightlife scene transformed east London’s formerly decaying Hoxton Square into an achingly hip address, only for some of the new residents to clamp down hard on the very venues that had fuelled their swanky apartment’s desirability.

Meet the hosts: Helen Gay, Knowhere Special

Helen KnowhereTell us your story? We first found this basement when looking for a pop-up space last summer. It needed a lot of work so became an all-consuming commitment.
Describe your bar? It’s an extension of our living room, of us. We want you to relax in the corner while we do the work, and feel like we’re part of the furniture too. We’ve trawled antique fairs to find all the pieces. It’s a labour of love.
What should we order? Drinks you won’t find anywhere else. Try a Park Bench – deconstructed cider served in a Strongbow can with a brown paper bag around it, and sausage roll on the side.
Message for locals? Come and have a look. There’s nothing untoward going on, no trouble. We’re a young couple who’ve devoted their life savings into this project to make it work.

And oh no, it’s not just London either. Over in New York City last month, filmmaker Spike Lee went off on a controversial rant about the gentrification of Brooklyn, with newcomers complaining his father was playing acoustic jazz – as he’s done for 40 years – too loudly.

But in his anger, Lee also displayed many of the traits of a nimby himself, holding a classic conservative, anti-gentrification stance about leaving neighbourhoods “as they’ve always been”. The golden age to which people refer like this almost certainly never really happened and was always a time of real hardship, whether in Brooklyn or London, NW5.

Den of iniquity or cultural gem? The bar at Knowhere Special

Den of iniquity or cultural gem? The bar at Knowhere Special

Living in a city is as much about the soundscape as it is the job opportunities and the wealth of entertainment. Lives can indeed be made a misery by unchecked noise pollution, doorway piss or brawling patrons, but yoga centres? Pizza options? Diminutive cocktail shops selling libations at a tenner a pop?

It all seems so counter-intuitive, at a time when the indie UK high street is under real threat of extinction that those of us lucky enough to live in locations where exciting new businesses want to open are in danger of having our neighbourhoods hobbled by the self-appointed “fun police”.

A ‘them versus us’ relationship is never healthy for a neighbourhood. Yet we must all be mindful of slipping in to it, since it is a most basic facet of tribal human nature to do so.

Meet the hosts: William Borrell, Ladies & Gentlemen

William Borrell with his tradmark suitcase and Vestal VodkaTell us your story? After resurrecting a small distillery in northern Poland five years ago and creating Vestal Vodka, I’ve been running pop up bars and Vestal Voyages. I saw an opportunity for the disused toilets near my home and, two years of planning later, I’ve applied to change their use to a neighbourhood bar.
Describe your bar?It might seem a strange concept but a neighbourhood bar is really a place much like that in TV’s Cheers, where regulars are encouraged to hang out after work and exchange ideas and thoughts. We’ll source ingredients from allotments locally and focus on seasonal menus. Look out for my mum and auntie’s homemade sausage rolls and scotch eggs made fresh daily.
What should we order? We’re still finishing our menu, but a popular one from our boat is called “Proper ‘Anchor” and is served in a martini glass with aged Vestal Kaszebe 2013, grapefruit juice, agave syrup and Angostura bitters.
Message for locals? I’ve sought to engage with all neighbours on this project as I feel it can add to the prosperity Kentish Town is currently enjoying. Whilst I’ve read there are a handful of objectors – who I understand object to most proposals in the area – I’ve been overwhelmed by the support. My hope is that people can see that small independent operators are at the core of what makes Kentish Town amazing, not the large coffee chains and national estate agents.

The alternative to later opening hours and old pubs turning ‘gastro’ essentially means a return to the mass 11pm kicking out time exodus, where, growing up in Kentish Town in the early 1990s, I remember regular brawls outside the Vulture’s Perch (now gastro-ed up into the late-licensed Oxford, no less). Some golden era.

Does anyone in their right mind really want the toilets to remain boarded up, the Bull and Gate to become flats, the talented mixologists to move on? Of course not. Nobody has ownership of the area they live in. The magic of a metropolis, much like life itself, is that we are simply there in the thick of it for a defined period of time.

That time should be a celebration, an explosion of different lifestyles and leisure choices, with opportunities to enjoy them all.

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13 Responses to The nimby threat to London’s cultural landscape

  1. Tigger Wednesday 23 April 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    I wonder how many of these Nimbys bothered to complain about genuinely problematic planning proposals such as Russian oligarchs’ attempts to build a mini-Kremlin overlooking the Ladies Pond or demolish Athlone House so they can build something far larger, uglier and more vulgar?

    Or perhaps they are the sort of people that support the City of London remodelling the bathing ponds like municipal reservoirs, based on a claim that heavy rain might lead every single dam on the Heath to collapse at once, spilling all the water into one torrent heading for their front porch – even though this is a technical impossibility. It’s not obvious who else supports the plans.

    Still, logic and science tend not to rank too highly on Nimbys’ radar. I’m still waiting for someone to explain exactly who’s buying entire blocks of pure rainforest destroying palm oil from Whole Earth. Presumably these people don’t care what effect they have on any part of the planet as long as they can indulge whatever misinformed health fad or whim they think is trendy this year.

  2. Kid Piccalilli Wednesday 23 April 2014 at 9:32 pm #

    Talented mixologists? Gimme. Murphy’s need em too for their cement trucks. But who wants ‘hipsters’ in KT?

    It ain’t Billyburg here just yet thank fuckywuckywoo. And I speak from the commanding heights of Oseney Crescent.

    Or to put it in slightly more grown up terms, can you please spare us the false dichotomies.

  3. Diana Partridge Thursday 24 April 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    I don’t live in Kentish Town but i am a frequent visitor. May i be permitted to wish all those who are developing the pubs, bars, and public toilets the very best of luck. It seems to me that all these places will be a welcome addition to the leisure scene in Kentish Town. I hope they all do a roaring trade and are made welcome by the community.

  4. Willy Borrell Thursday 24 April 2014 at 10:07 pm #

    I have now met with the Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum who shared with me their vision of Kentish town and on the whole have been pleasant to deal with.

    I enjoyed the chance to open dialog with regards to the converting of this disused public toilet into a neighbourhood bar but have been met with a series of emails from a very rude and angry chairperson of the KTNF that sets back this well meaning organisation in their vision of Kentish town and the willingness for any new development to consult with them.

  5. Tim Friday 25 April 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    This isn’t a very constructive article, in my opinion. If the point is to demonstrate that nobody has ownership over an area we share, maybe a follow up could be to get the opinions of the people who are objecting, rather than just labelling them as an anonymous ‘Nimby’?

    Some of the people who are objecting to changes in the area are those who put in hundreds of hours a year of their time, unpaid, for no other reason than to try and support their community/area. Surely their opinion – right or wrong – counts as much as the people who are trying to improve the area by setting up new businesses (and thus also making a living out of it)?

    Is the Kentishtowner a ‘Nimby’ for publishing a series of articles last year against the proposed redevelopment of the Castle pub? Or is Nick Hardy, (leading the fight against the dismal Princes Park disaster in Talacre Gardens) just a ‘Nimby’?

    It’s hard to get your voice heard. Some people don’t have the luxury of friends in the media who will support their cause, so have to resort to the planning process as it’s a resource for anyone and everyone in the community. The people who live in the area could be seen as ‘hosts’ for the businesses as well, wouldn’t it be great to meet those ‘hosts’ and find out their opinions. Who are those people? It’s lazy to drop everyone in to a ‘Nimby’ basket. Possibly they do enjoy different lifestyles and leisure choices. Is objecting to two new cocktail bars and a gastropub, when there’s already a great cocktail bar and umpteen gastropubs in a small area, actually preventing people who like their food and drink to enjoy it?

    (In case anyone wants to know I personally would support the cocktail bars but think Youngs deserve all the pain they’re getting for shutting down a great music venue)

    • Tom Friday 25 April 2014 at 10:53 pm #

      Like. Such a niche issue, I’m guessing Mr Borrell and the Kentishtowner are friends.

      For my part I’m not bothered either way how it turns out, but definitely don’t think a third cocktail bar in 100 metres is as important as it’s being made out to be.

    • Kentishtowner
      Kentishtowner Wednesday 30 April 2014 at 4:51 pm #

      Hi Tim,
      To answer some of your main points:

      1. In our experience, many people in a community who put in unpaid time working on neighbourhood groups are doing so with a personal as well as collective agenda. They will have a view of how they wish their area to be, but it will never be the only view. Surely an article representing an alternative to self-appointed local voices is equally as valid?

      2. It’s not nimbyism to voice opposition to the destruction of a historic pub by a property company. We have no issue with Ringley operating ‘in my back yard’, but to the loss of the building itself.

      3. The article has no issue with the democratic planning process, but this does have a tendency to be used by a handful of residents in locations all over the UK to automatically object to businesses where people might be considered to be having a bit too much fun.

      4. All the bars featured told us that they have made an effort to reach out to the community – the ‘hosts’ – but have had little or no interest.

      5. Without Youngs, the B&G would almost certainly now be flats. The demise of the music venue is surely down to the previous owners selling it off (for a couple of million) and the shifting live music scene. A brewery looking to run the pub with an increased food focus is the model that has saved countless local boozers before. Surely Youngs have ‘saved’ the B&G (if they don’t lose interest waiting for permission to proceed)?

      And finally, as one of our regular writers, why not consider a response piece?
      Best,
      Tom

      • Tim Thursday 8 May 2014 at 2:23 pm #

        Hi Tom,
        Thanks for your reply. I will write to you privately about a response piece, but in the spirit of keeping the debate alive, I think…
        1) Most residents associations and neighbourhood forums are actually fairly democratic, but, just like on the bigger scale, you get what you vote for – if younger people and cocktail lovers bothered to engage they could also speak on behalf of those groups. It’s not the fault of a RA or NF that older people more established in the area are the only ones who want to get involved and can commit more time to it. Another reason why having more transitory students in an area can cause problems.

        2) People objecting to the proposed bars are objecting to the change of use, not the owners. So objecting to Ringley’s changing the pub (which I myself completely oppose) is surely nimbyism. And the ‘self appointed’ RAs and NFs have put in a huge amount of time fighting Ringley’s proposed development, that they deserve applause for (in my opinion).

        3) See above – the democratic process has saved the Golden Lion recently, and just saved the structure of the Castle.

        4) But did the Kentishtowner reach out to the ‘hosts’? That’s my point, it could/should have been a more balanced article. Maybe the KTer would have had more luck in getting a response.

        5) It’s obviously the right of the owners of the B&G to set their price and sell it to whomever they choose, but to be honest, I personally think Kentish Town needs a gastropub like a motorbike needs an ashtray. It’s a shame that with such entrepreneurism and dynamism in the area (as demonstrated by Ladies and Gentlemen) no-one could come forward to try and retain a historic and still successful music venue, and Youngs don’t seem to want to entertain any possibility of that venture.

        Best,
        Tim

  6. Anthony Saturday 26 April 2014 at 12:17 am #

    .who on earth could possibly object to what was a useful facility, a toilet, becoming an “on trend “cocktail bar…..is kentishtowner run or paid for by the pretend hipster (he’s got a beard, got to be on trend) bleating about the planning process and how it listens to locals? Stop moaning ffs and respect democracy

  7. Sarah Sunday 27 April 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    I do get a bit sad about all of the student accommodation I see springing up around the place, when I am facing moving out of the borough to find somewhere affordable to buy. How do students afford the overpriced rent in these places, anyway?

  8. Catherine Sunday 27 April 2014 at 10:19 pm #

    I’m not bothered either way about another hipster cocktail bar (or two) opening up, but anyone who has ever lived next door to or underneath a student flat knows the misery of random 4:00am dubstep-blasting parties on a weekday. We pay a lot of money to live here and I want to SLEEP. I will always object to student accommodation near me if given the opportunity. I make no apologies.

  9. Wendy Sinclair Thursday 8 May 2014 at 2:15 pm #

    Very good article, Kentishtowner. Anyone would think that the local associations are being asked to part with their own cash for these redevelopments. Look at those public loos!! That whole corner is a complete eye sore and desperately in need of regeneration… We are all sooo looking forward to Mr Borells concept…we should be thanking him for risking his own pounds to do this.

  10. Sue Monday 19 May 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Terrible article, but that is my opinion. However get your facts straight most people weren’t objecting to student flats, but yet another oversized building proposed by a not altogether trustworthy developer.