Did an Alleged Sexual Assault Shut Down This Beloved London Venue, or is City Planning to Blame?
The founder of Hackney Wick nightspot Shapes claims he was pushed out by development and bureaucracy.
All photos courtesy of Shapes
When musician and entrepreneur Seb Glover first opened Hackney Wick music venue Shapes in 2013, he envisioned something more than just a place to party. Tucked away in the industrial neighborhood in East London that was home to the 2012 London Olympic Games, the renovated two-floor printing house was meant to double up as a community hub. Revenue from the club on the ground-floor helped subsidise the music studios upstairs, which Shapes rented out to local producers at below-market rates; Shapes also ran DJ workshops for children and literacy programmes in local schools, and gave free use of the space to local community groups.
Something of a Jamie Oliver of nightlife, Glover had a successful run for over three years, snagging big names like Nosaj Thing, Gorgon City, and Leon Vynehall to headline club nights while offering jobs to locals and creating a much-needed platform for the area's longstanding but underserved artistic scene.
But then earlier this month, details emerged that Shapes had lost its licence because of a sex crime that happened on the venue's premises. In March, a woman was allegedly raped while attending a private event hosted by the BDSM party Kinky Salon. Shapes' management was accused by police of hindering the investigation by stalling on handing over CCTV security footage—an allegation that was widely reported as the reason why the club ended up shuttering for good at the end of July.
Glover, however, is now claiming that police and local authorities used the assault allegation to mask the real reason why the club was forced to close: the venue is going to be turned into luxury housing as part of a government-backed initiative to revamp the neighbourhood.
Shapes' closure comes at a critical moment for UK nightlife. Nearly half of the UK's nightclubs have closed over the past ten years, including a number of the capital's iconic music venues, like Plastic People, Turnmills, and The End. Club owners and punters blame gentrification for a number of the recent venue closures in London—in Dalston, two miles away from Shapes, the alternative arts venue Passing Clouds closed this month because the building had been sold to property developers. Dance Tunnel also closed this month, after a long battle with Hackney council over opening times. And following two suspected drug-related deaths, beloved 17-year-old dance music venue Fabric is also under threat of closure, its famously well curated programming put on hold as the authorities review its licence.
All eyes are now on Sadiq Khan, the newly elected Mayor of London who made protecting the city's club culture one of his campaign promises earlier this year, and who announced last week that he was recruiting a Night Czar to assist him in using nightlife as a means of economic development.
"You're given different hoops to jump through which keep moving"—Seb Glover, Shapes' founder
Glover believes Khan has his work cut out for him. Shapes' closure, he says, illustrates the ways in which the system is stacked against independent music venues like his, favouring property developers over the very cultural institutions that attracted gentrification there in the first place.
"The [sexual assault allegation] was used a way for the police to get at us and detract from the real situation," Glover told THUMP in a telephone interview. "It was my first insight into the power to create a narrative which wasn't the reality of the situation."
The 29-year-old founder told THUMP that Shapes was evicted from the building in July because the London Legacy Development Corporation—the city planning authority responsible for developing the areas around the Olympic Park, including Hackney Wick, by building housing and retail space—did not want a music venue in the area. The public company was formed in 2012 to deliver London's Olympic bid promise to regenerate the area after the games ended. But over the past few years, the LLDC has been heavily criticised for forcible evictions and eroding creative culture in implementing these plans.
"We didn't fit into the LLDC's [development] plan," Glover said. Prior to the venue's closure, Glover has long been fighting to permanently turn the disused warehouse in which Shapes was housed into a multipurpose events space. In order to do so, he needed approval from two separate local government bodies: a premises licence from Hackney Council, and planning permission—or a permit required to change the use of a building—from the LLDC. But the two entities, he says, gave him conflicting terms.
The council granted his premises licence, but Glover was only able to get a one-year planning permission from the LLDC, and the operating hours of the two permits did not match up. According to Glover, the LLDC refused to renew his planning application this year. He said the authority then went directly to the building's owners and pressured them into evicting Shapes altogether, so that the building could be turned into luxury housing.
For Glover, the incompatibility of the permits Shapes was issued encapsulates the biggest challenge he faced when running the space: navigating a labyrinth of bureaucracy that frequently pitted one department's interests against another. "You're given different hoops to jump through which keep moving," he said. "You've got to adhere to them all, but they contradict each other, so you're left in an impossible situation."
The loss of Shapes meant Glover had to let go of five full-time and 50 part-time members of staff, many of whom lived in the neighborhood. Since shuttering, the venue has ceased the operation of the studios—they are currently being temporarily managed by another party—and discontinued its program of workshops and community outreach initiatives.
"There's an undervaluing of the organic DIY community that resides in Hackney Wick," Glover explained. "You saw that during the 2012 Olympics, where all the graffiti down the canal was cleaned off, and the LLDC commissioned international artists to come and graffiti it back again."
In an email to THUMP, a spokesperson for the LLDC said the entity denied Shapes' application for planning permission this year because they contravened last year's permit by keeping the venue open later than the hours it stipulated. The spokesperson wrote: "Shapes was given planning permission for one year between March 2014 and April 2015. During that period, they continually breached the conditions of their planning permission and were the subject of a number of [noise] complaints from local residents. They continued operating after the permission had expired, and an enforcement notice was served." According to public records, when Shapes filed for its planning permission with the LLDC in 2014, five neighbours objected, citing potential noise disturbances.
In London, civilians looking to file a noise complaint can do so either with the police or the local council. According to an email sent to Glover from Sergeant Guy Hicks, the law enforcement officer leading the sexual assault investigation, the police had reported only six reported phone thefts—and no noise complaints or violent crimes—at Shapes in the years 2014 and 2015. THUMP's request to the Hackney council about whether noise complaints were made about the venue did not receive a response.
The building at 117 Wallis Road is owned by the property developer Groveworld. Groveworld also own the artist studios across the road from Shapes—and have plans, approved by the LLDC, to demolish them later this year. When the LLDC goes ahead with its plans to regenerate the area, Groveworld will be one of the developers involved in the building work.
Richard Rothwell, senior development manager at Groveworld, told THUMP that Shapes was served a lease termination notice back in January—to be enforced this summer—because they were contravening the terms of their rental agreement by not complying with the LLDC's regulation of operating hours.
"It was quite straightforward for us," Rothwell explained. "It was a case [where our] tenants were in breach of their terms. They were on a short-term lease anyway, so there was a natural break clause that was agreed [on] from day one." Rothwell added that Shapes is also in "significant rent arrears." He also said that the club had been given notice six months ago that their lease was being terminated.
In an email to THUMP, Glover refuted the claims made by the landlord and the LLDC, saying that he was paying rent but that Groveworld had been sending back the payments since January. He said: "The landlord's hands have been tied by the LLDC."
While Glover's relationship with the planning department has been difficult, he said other areas of local government have been supportive of Shapes. Elected councilors from the London Borough of Hackney, he said, have long championed Shapes' mission. In emails Glover forwarded THUMP, Hackney Councillor Christopher Kennedy wrote that Shapes was "an asset to Hackney Wick," and urged the LLDC to reconsider its position.
Shapes isn't alone in battling the planning authority. There's a Change.org petition to stop the demolition of the Vittoria Wharf warehouse complex, home to over 100 artists residing in live-work studios and known as Europe's largest creative community.
When asked if the LLDC plans to include music venues in its development plans, the spokesperson for the LLDC told THUMP that the agency is "happy to and do support music and entertainment venues in the area when they comply with the conditions of their planning permission, but will take action when conditions are breached and other residents and businesses are affected."
When asked what specific music venues in the area the LLDC does support, the spokesperson listed 90 Main Yard, Yard Theatre, and the Copper Box Arena. None of these spaces, however, are dedicated music venues: two are theatre spaces that occasionally host music events, and one is a sports venue.
There is an ongoing investigation into the alleged sexual assault that took place at the venue on March 19, but Glover denied the police's claim that Shapes delayed handing over security footage during the investigation, a claim he cites as another example of the contradictory protocols venues like his are up against. He said he supplied video as soon as it was formally requested, but that he had asked the police to first fill out a data protection form, a procedure the venue had in place to ensure it was in compliance with the Data Protection Act, the UK law governing the protection of personal data. The alleged assault took place at a sex party, so Glover had privacy concerns over the sensitive nature of the footage. He emphasized that any allegation of sexual assault or violence is taken seriously by management, and that Shapes condemns such behaviour on its premises and has been working with police on their investigation.
Despite Glover's claims that Shapes complied fully with the investigation, a spokesperson from the Metropolitan Police told THUMP that the police recommended to the council that Shapes' premise licence be revoked following "a breach of the conditions of the licence regarding CCTV." The spokesperson declined to comment on when the video footage was formally requested and when it was handed over.
Although Glover lost his battle for the venue in Hackney Wick, he says Shapes will live on; he plans to reopen elsewhere in the city, somewhere where music venues are a valued part of the local community. Glover said Khan's election may have arrived too late for Hackney Wick, but that the mayor's campaign has filled him with optimism that nighttime industries will get the recognition they deserve. "There's now a great opportunity for the renaissance of club culture and we're going to be driving that forward and making sure it happens," he said.
In a statement he emailed to THUMP, however, his tone became a little more urgent, a little more caustic: "Shapes calls on Sadiq Khan to fulfil his pledge to protect London's music venues and investigate the unethical actions of both his planning department and his police force in this matter."