OCS objects to Wheatsheaf planning application

Reasons why the City should refuse the application.

16 March 2021

Slabdragger at The Wheatsheaf
Slabdragger at The Wheatsheaf

Here is the text of our letter submitted today objecting to the planning application which would see the loss of the Wheatsheaf music venue.

Ref: 21/00345/FUL. Conversion of first and second floors to create 9no. student rooms, shared kitchen and common area. Wheatsheaf Yard, The Wheatsheaf High Street Oxford OX1 4DF

Oxford Civic Society objects to this application.

We support the City Council’s aim, set out in the Oxford Local Plan, to facilitate a vibrant local economy and cultural diversity, and venues like the Wheatsheaf are an essential grass roots part of that, both in the city and beyond.

A key component of the Local Plan is to ensure that the Oxford city region is a centre of innovation.  We tend to think that innovation relates to scientific and technological developments, but it also applies to developments in the cultural arena.  Contemporary rock, metal, indie, reggae and jazz bands presented and, in some cases, nurtured in the Wheatsheaf have been a grass roots feature of the UK’s hugely successful and internationally-renowned creative music industry.

Regarding the current application, the physical aspects of the building are respected, the business case makes sense, and the Wheatsheaf is in one of the areas where applications for new student accommodation can be allowed under the terms of the current Local Plan.  What’s more, if the owners prefer to use part of their property for accommodation, they can’t be forced to do otherwise.  They certainly can’t be compelled to continue to run a music venue.

But Oxford’s Local Plan policy V7 says ‘The City Council will seek to protect and retain existing cultural and community facilities.  Planning permission will not be granted for development that results in the loss of such facilities unless new or improved facilities can be provided at a location equally or more accessible’.

The section of the National Planning Policy Framework dealing with proposals affecting heritage assets suggests that local planning authorities should require an applicant to describe the significance of any heritage assets affected.  In our view, the present application treats the value of the Wheatsheaf’s heritage role somewhat dismissively and does not stretch to music as ‘intangible heritage’.

The applicant’s Heritage Impact Statement explores the value of the Wheatsheaf’s architecture and the potential impact of the proposals on it, as well as the physical context in which it sits, but heritage is not just about the fabric.  It is also about the history of the use and the cultural significance of the activities undertaken in the premises.  Even more dismissively, the Viability Assessment of the planning application suggests that there are many other venues available which could continue the Wheatsheaf’s contribution to music.  Our review of the list provided demonstrates that this is grossly misleading and the city centre would be left devoid of venues appropriate for the relevant musical genres.

The applicant should be encouraged to withdraw the application and continue the music function in some way, or join forces with the music community and others to look for an alternative site.

Encouraging the Wheatsheaf’s previous activities somehow to continue would be firmly in the spirit of both the national and the local planning systems. It would also be consistent with the city’s COVID recovery efforts and its ambition to enhance the attractiveness of the city centre to visitors.

G Coates, Planning Group Co-ordinator