Two years and seven months after developers first submitted plans for a film studio complex in Midlothian, the Scottish Government has finally issued a decision.
Had everything gone to plan back in 2014, Hollywood A-listers and multi-million pound productions would currently be shooting in a brand new facility moments away from Straiton in West Midlothian.
However, plagued by delays, dithering, much debate and conflictions with emerging local and regional development plans, the 36.6 Hectare site at Old Pentland remains undeveloped and frequented by livestock, much to the dismay of the developers and the wider film industry.
On Monday 3 April, the years of indecision and waiting came to an end, with the Scottish Government giving developers approval to move forward with a formal, detailed planning application. The favourable decision comes in spite of recommendations of refusal from both the Government’s own reporter and Midlothian Council.
The £250M studio complex is comprised of six sound stages, extensive backlot areas, a 180 bed hotel, film and television higher education building, power station and space for production and creative uses. It is envisaged that the development will create 600 jobs during the four and a half year construction phase and then sustain 900 jobs once fully operational.
Applicants PSL Land land limited said that they were “very pleased” with the Ministers’ decision:
PSL Land Ltd are very pleased with today’s decision by Ministers to approve the grant of planning permission in principle for Scotland’s world-class Film & TV studio complex, and will be moving forward immediately with the application for planning permission in detail for the Film Studio, Academy and Energy Centre sections of the development
Developers will now be required to formalise the final design proposed for the site, taking into consideration fears over the visual impact of the complex. A new application will then be made to Midlothian Council for assessment, a process that PSL are hoping will go a lot smoother than previously. The spokesperson for the developers continued:
Working together with Midlothian Council, PSL hope this next stage will be expedited accordingly, recovering the construction scheduling that will enable delivery of the key Studio operation by late 2018. It is anticipated that a detailed schedule to progress the planning application will be agreed with Midlothian Council in the next few weeks, producing a phased timeframe with the Studio, Academy and Energy Centre as the first buildings to be progressed to full planning consent.
There are still, however issues to be overcome before construction can commence.
The Government’s reporter, who was assigned to assess the planning application after Midlothian Council failed to reach a decision within the statutory 16 week period, expressed deep concern that the development’s approval could be at the detriment of the county’s forthcoming Local Development Plan. These concerns are related to the provision of land for Midlothian Council’s flagship A701 bypass, which is due to bisect the film studio site. Developers have instead offered fallow land to the west of their site for the realignment and have insisted that the Council’s favoured route would be “fatal” for the Film Studio. In a 93 page report to the Scottish Government, DPEA reporter David Buylla concludes:
I conclude that the prejudice to the emerging LDP, which is at a very late stage in its production, and the consequent threat to the delivery of its proposed A701 relief road and the strategic development allocations, in combination with the other negative effects of the proposal, outweighs the socio-economic benefits it would deliver. Accordingly, I recommend that planning permission in principle is refused.
Despite this stark warning from their own reporter, the Scottish Government’s Chief Planner John McNairney, gave approval stating:
Scottish Ministers have carefully considered all the evidence presented by the written submissions and the reporter’s conclusions and recommendations and do not support the reporter’s recommendation to refuse this application.
The potential for significant socio-economic benefits arising from the proposed development outweighs any dis-benefits of the development. Ministers therefore consider that planning permission should be granted notwithstanding that the proposed development is contrary to the development plan.
Ministers have attached what they call a “Grampian condition” to the approval. This condition will prevent development from commencing until details and routing of the proposed A701 bypass have been confirmed. At this stage, when the Local Development Plan is still being determined by the Scottish Government, it is impossible to say when this decision may come. Planning condition also states that PSL will have to pay contributions to the Council for the A701 bypass’ construction and should a figure not be ascertained within six months, the Government will reassess their decision.
The approval will come as relief to many within the Film and Television industry, who have been desperate for a purpose built film studio complex in the country. Pentland Studios will be the first of its kind in Scotland and is set to take on well established complexes south of the border. It is understood that Pinewood will operate the Straiton studios.
However, many will also be disappointed by the decision. Damhead Community Council and its residents fiercely opposed the plans on grounds that the area would be blighted by the sound stages, local wildlife and biodiversity would be adversely impacted and that a resident tenant farmer would have to vacate his property, losing prime agricultural land. The governmental reporter had sympathy for the objectors and agreed that the area would be transformed detrimentally by the development. However he added:
The loss of the 23 hectares of the appeal proposal’s Site A would not have a significant effect on food supply. And when weighed against the predicted socio- economic benefits of the proposed development, which I have concluded would be significant at both a national and local level, and the locational justification that has been put forward for siting the proposed development in this location, I conclude that the loss of prime agricultural land is justified by the facts of this proposal.
There may be cause for some celebration from developers, supporters and the industry but following a gruelling two and a half year planning battle, there may still be much more fighting to come.
Follow the Film Studio’s journey from August 2014 to present day by clicking here.