In light of recent events, Nathan Davies walks us through the troubled history of The Rainbow Pub and Blackbox and explains the recent closure’s impacts on Birmingham

Written by Nathan Davies
Images by James Jin

Precisely one fortnight after reopening its doors, a statement released Saturday 27th October announced that the Blackbox would, once again, be closing. Unbeknownst to its operators, a three-bedroom holiday let had been developed next door to the venue, with a number of noise complaints having already been raised to the landlord by its residents. Currently, a single registered complaint from neighbours can trigger a license review, as such the operators have preemptively closed the venue so as to avoid losing their license whilst remaining locked into a long-term lease.

The Victorian venue had long been a bohemian hotspot on Digbeth high street before the condemning of its courtyard in 2005 prompted Lee McDonald to take it over

As part of the newly opened Finders Keepers (formerly The Rainbow pub), this comes as yet another instalment in a long history marred with set-backs. The Victorian venue had long been a bohemian hotspot on Digbeth high street before the condemning of its courtyard in 2005 prompted Lee McDonald to take it over, setting in motion the establishment of The Rainbow Venues. Hosting a range of events within the pub and its courtyard catering to a wide range of musical tastes, the venue’s success and rising popularity eventually saw it condemned once again due to an insufficient number of fire exits. However, The Rainbow soon returned with a vengeance, having improved the Courtyard and boasting a new sound system.

A noise abatement notice received in 2009 from the residents of newly built flats nearby posed The Rainbow Pub’s next obstacle, in circumstances not dissimilar to recent events. The ‘Save The Rainbow’ campaign this prompted quickly gathered momentum, with its Facebook group reaching 22,000 members within 10 days, and the BBC even doing a live broadcast from within the pub. In order to continue operating, a £30,000 insulating roof had to be installed over the Courtyard, the cost of which being partially raised by an event staged by Birmingham natives UB40. Having successfully handled the complication, the operators pushed on, converting the Cellar into an additional space in 2012. However, following this, a violent incident involving security staff in 2015 provoked an expedited review and temporary loss of the site’s license.

Finally, on May 28th 2017 the venue shut its doors as The Rainbow pub for good, as its operators sought to concentrate their efforts into the many sites it had spawned around the corner on Lower Trinity Street. Somewhat ironically, plans to further develop The Rainbow Arena, The Rainbow Warehouse, Blackbox, Roof Garden, Spotlight and Mama Roux were cut short later that year when many of these venues had their license revoked.

The 350-capacity, dark, intimate setting of the Courtyard was the ideal candidate to rehouse the now-displaced Blackbox

Nevertheless, the site did not lie dormant for long, reincarnated as Finders Keepers by its current owners who took over the lease in August. The 350-capacity, dark, intimate setting of the Courtyard was the ideal candidate to rehouse the now-displaced Blackbox, and the revived venue hit the ground running. Playing host to Nicolas Lutz for its opening night on 13th October, O Flynn, Bobby Pleasure and Wes Baggaley also headlined over the subsequent fortnight. Unfortunately, a venue change for Shadow City’s event with Jeremy Underground on 26th October foreshadowed the Blackbox’s closure the next day, due to which the sold out Hot Since 82 show had to be cancelled. Whilst Finders Keepers was not shut in its entirety, with the This Ain’t Berlin event still going ahead in the Cellar, it’s time entertaining some of the most prominent and interesting DJs within their respective areas of dance music had seemingly ended as quickly as it (re)started. The 10th November event with Binh was cancelled, Mella Dee’s return to Birmingham has been moved to Amusement 13, Objekt and Jane Fitz’s show will take place at the newly opened Twenty2, and HAAi will now play at The Mill.

The comments section below the closing statement released by the Blackbox is littered with both those venting frustration at the operators and those lamenting another loss to Digbeth’s nightlife. Certain other comments see Birmingham council labelled as unsympathetic at best, or at worst, involved in a wider scheme of gentrification within Digbeth, ushering out the elements interfering with this, a notion already proposed in relation to other high-profile closures in the area. Sensationalist or not, the situation certainly does pose some interesting questions. Despite a much larger backlash following the revocation of The Rainbow Venues’ license in late 2017, and the wider conversation surrounding the appropriateness of this course of action, the deaths prompting this were undeniably tragic. However, the differing circumstances of the Blackbox’s closure brings to the fore ongoing debates regarding British nightlife, particularly the ‘agent of change principle’.

The ‘agent of change principle’ essentially shifts the burden of responsibility to the incoming party

It has long been the case that, if locating nearby to existing residential properties, entertainment venues must ensure that their activities do not cause problems for those living nearby. As such, the onus is upon a new venue to implement measures mitigating any adverse impacts it may cause, including those resulting from noise. On the contrary, previous legislation with regard to new residential properties being located near pre-existing noise sources was less clear. The ‘agent of change principle’ addresses this, essentially shifting the burden of responsibility to the incoming party, positing that when an entity introduces a new land use or locates a new development, they must consider the existing businesses (such as entertainment venues) nearby, and mitigate the impact of noise and other potential nuisances.

This principle was a key pillar within the manifesto of the 2016 ‘Night Life Matters’ campaign launched by the Night Time Industries Association, a body representing ‘independent bar, nightclub and restaurant owners, pubs, festival and live music event operators’. Supported by the Housing White Paper ‘Fixing our Broken Housing Market’ published in February 2017, in April the House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003 recommended ‘that a full ‘Agent of Change’ principle be adopted in both planning and licensing guidance to help protect both licensed premises and local residents from consequences arising from any new built development in their nearby vicinity. (Paragraph 553)’, with its chairman recognising both the rights of residents, as well as the need to support businesses and prevent the decline in night-life.

Finders Keepers and, by extension, the Blackbox might be considered the incoming agent of change

Following 29,000 responses to the Government’s consultation, which demonstrated ‘strong support’ for the Agent of Change principle, the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF2) came into force on 24th July 2018. NPPF2 explicitly references and clarifies the concept, preventing unreasonable restrictions being placed upon existing businesses due to new developments in the area. Local Planning Authorities should therefore consider this when setting their policy, and provide guidance to developers in this regard.

I cannot claim to understand the finer details of the new framework; it may well be that under its new lease, Finders Keepers and, by extension, the Blackbox might be considered the incoming agent of change. It may also be the case that, after bearing witness to the ultimately doomed legal struggles of The Rainbow Venues earlier in the year, its owners wished to avoid a similar ordeal. Regardless, operators obviously felt it necessary to take action before the matter was beyond their control. Unfortunately, this would appear indicative of a continued oppressive licensing environment and does not bode well for new venues looking to set up in the area. For now, the long-standing venue continues on in a limited capacity, whilst the Blackbox finds itself, once again, without a home.