Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ministry of Sound under threat?

South London club the Ministry of Sound is objecting to a proposed building development which it claims could threaten its future. As part of the regeneration programme for the Elephant and Castle area, developer Oakmayne is planning a 41 storey block, to include 335 flats, next to the club.

According to an article in Southwark News (18 February 2010):

'Lohan Presencer, Ministry of Sound CEO, fears placing so many residents in an 'enterprise quarter' for businesses will force his club to pack up and leave. He said: "The bottom line is we are very fortunate to exist in a non residential area. If there are 300 residential apartments directly opposite the Ministry of Sound, and if any one of those residents had any issue with somebody outside their apartment at three or four in the morning they could legitimately complain to the Environmental Health Officer.They could take that to a licence committee and challenge our licence. If our licence is challenged and it has a sufficient lobby behind it, regardless of our history here, we could lose it."

A report by Southwark Council officers regarding the plans confirmed this. It stated 'The MofS will therefore be open to enforcement action under the nuisance provisions of the Environmental Protection Act'.'

Misery Unsound

Personally I have always been decidedly ambivalent about the Ministry for its role in pioneering the 1990s superclub phenomenon, with incessant branding, VIP lounges, and multiple mechanisms to fleece punters. In their case too, there were stories of dubious competitive practices. A court heard allegations in January 1999 that the Ministry had sent an undercover team with newspaper reporters to try and prove evidence of drug dealing at arch rival Cream in Liverpool (Mixmag, Feb 1999). And we've mentioned here before that in 1995 they hosted the police launch of an anti-drugs campaign on the back of a stage managed police raid on Club UK days before.

Then there's the dodgy political connections. MoS was set up by old Etonian James Palumbo, son of the property developer Lord Palumbo. He hired his cousin James Bethell (the 5th Baron Bethell) as Managing Director, a Tory activist who worked for Conservative Central Office in the 1997 election and later stood unsuccessfully as the Conservative candidate for Tooting in the 2005 election. Palumbo hedged his bets though in 1997, lending Labour's Peter Mandelson a chauffeur-driven car during the election.

Still nobody can deny it's been an important club for dance music for nearly twenty years, and like most people who have been out dancing in London in that time I've had some memorable nights there. I particularly remember going there shortly after my daughter was born. The look on the bouncer's face when my partner had to explain what the breast pump in her handbag was for was priceless.

There doesn't seem to be an immediate danger of the club having to close, but they are right to identify that there is a medium term threat. When the warehouse was converted to a club in 1991, it's neighbours were civil servants in office buildings that were empty at weekends. An influx of residents, particularly the kind of well-connected wealthier citizens who know how to get their own way, would doubtless result in complaints and attempts to restrict the club's licence.

There is a broader issue here of how nightlife in cities tends to flourish in economically marginal zones, such as abandoned/converted warehouses and railway arches. As land values increase and areas are gentrified, these spaces are squeezed out along with the musicking/dancing cultures they sustain. We have already seen this happen around Kings Cross in London, and similar developments have been noted in Paris. Will South London's clubs around the Elephant, London Bridge and Vauxhall be next?

Update, November 2013: this row is still rumbling on. Southwark Council refused the development planning permission, but London Mayor Boris Johnson has called the decision in - which means that he takes the power away from the local council to decide whether or not it goes ahead. Decision is due this month- so the Ministry is crawling to Johnson with this hideous superhero image... Of course Johnson is another old Etonian like James Palumbo (who is still Chairman of the Ministry of Sound group).

More proof of Palumbo's political promiscuity - on top of his previous Tory and Labour links outlined above,  last month he was made a Liberal Democrat life Peer ( 'Baron Palumbo of Southwark') on the back of donating more than £700,000 to the Liberal Democrats. Yes he now has political power in the House of Lords without a single vote being cast for him thanks to making money from people dancing. That's democracy folks...

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