MUSIC lovers have reacted with dismay at "devastating" plans to close Oxford city centre's last real gig venue and turn it into student flats.

Owners of The Wheatsheaf, off High Street, have submitted an application to Oxford City Council for permission to close its first floor concert venue and convert it, and the floor above, into apartments.

Over the past 20 years, The Wheatsheaf has hosted some of the biggest bands to have emerged from the city – including Supergrass, Stornoway and Foals, who played their first gig there.

The intimate venue is home to a wide variety of gig nights giving local bands a crucial platform and attracting acts to the city. It also hosts Oxford's only jazz club The Spin – which holds a Parliamentary Jazz Award for best club in the country.

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The loss of The Cellar, off Cornmarket, in 2019, left The Wheatsheaf as the last grassroots venue in the city centre. The Cellar was forced out by its landlords, St Michael’s and All Saints’ Charities, after a massive rent hike. More than 2,000 music fans had rallied around to save the venue following a previous attempt to shut it down. A crowdfunding initiative backed by members of Oxford bands Radiohead, Ride and Foals, raised more than £92,000.

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The Wheatsheaf plans, submitted by applicant Glen de Unger through his agent Tim Smith of Riach Architects in Banbury Road, requests permission for the conversion of first and second floors to create nine student rooms, a shared kitchen and common area. The pub would remain, but a section would be converted into a bike store for the upstairs flats.

Appearing to downplay the significance of the venue, the applicant writes: "The first floor has been used as a function space in the past."

In fact the venue was in constant use and hosting capacity gigs under the supervision of iconic resident sound engineer Joal Shearing, right up to its closure for the first national lockdown, last March.

Pink Diamond Revue at The Wheatsheaf. Picture by Guy Henstock

Pink Diamond Revue at The Wheatsheaf. Picture by Guy Henstock

By midday on Saturday more than 100 people had submitted objections to the plans.

The prospect of the venue closing is a blow for a city famous for its music scene. A 'Save the Sheaf' Facebook page has attracted more than 1,000 members in less than 24 hours.

Ronan Munro, editor of the city's music magazine Nightshift and former organiser of the multi-venue Oxford Punt festival, said: "It is absolutely devastating for this to happen. We have already lost The Cellar, The Point, and The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre and must save this.

"A few years ago there were eight venues in the city centre and The Wheatsheaf is the only one left."

He added: "Bands like Radiohead, Ride, Supergrass and Glass Animals all started at venues like The Wheatsheaf – it's where they learn their trade. But these venues are undervalued and overlooked. Nobody cares. People talk about heritage and culture but that doesn't just mean old buildings, it's about the places where things are created – and The Wheatsheaf is the last bastion of un-gentrified Oxford city centre.

"Everything is shutting for property developers to build more flats that no one can afford. The city council needs to support small venues and grassroots music. People come to Oxford for its music, but we are losing it and will become just like Cheltenham or High Wycombe.

"Money and power win every time."

Oxford musician Phil Freizinger of the band The Mighty Redox, said: "It's really bad news, but not unexpected. As the only remaining live music venue in town, it's of huge importance. It should have a preservation order not be closing.

"It has been my second home for 20 years and I play about 50 shows a year there. It has a great atmosphere, is central, easy to get to on public transport and has huge Oxford rock heritage. It's exactly what you want from a venue – and it's crucial that it stays. We just can't let it go."

Nick Breakspear of the Black Hats

Nick Breakspear of the Black Hats

Guitarist Nick Breakspear has played the venue numerous times with his band Black Hats. He said: "Every band that exists started in a venue like the Wheatsheaf. For the future of music we have no choice but to fight for its survival.

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"One of the first Black Hats gigs was at The Wheatsheaf and we were also due to play there on the weekend before the first lockdown. Joal and that stage have been part of our musical journey.

"City centre venues require cultural protection and the council and our MP need to step in. Try to imagine that the Cavern Club in Liverpool was being turned into flats, it wouldn’t be an option!"

  • Comment on the application, ref: 21/00345/FUL on the city council's planning site