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Reception Centre Visualisation © Keppie and PSLL Ltd

Ministers U-Turn on Film Studio “Call-In”

Plans to construct a film studio complex near Loanhead are now deemed of “national significance” and will be determined by Scottish Government Ministers.

After previously refusing a plea for help from developers behind plans for a £140m studio, the Scottish Government will now use their Directorate of Planning and Environmental Appeals to rule on the controversial application.

Earlier this month, developers PSL Land Ltd asked ministers to use their powers to determine their application, which had failed to be determined by the council within the statutory 16 week period. This call was refused prompting an application for non submission to the Government’s appeal body. This would have seen an assigned reporter make the final decision but in a u-turn by the Ministers, they have now agreed to consider the plans once all material submissions have been gathered.

A tentative determination date has been set for the 26 February, some nine months after the initial submission.

If approved, the complex will be comprised of sound stages, backlots, a film school, hotel, student accommodation and energy centre. A studio tour building and a mixed use development could follow. The developer’s intentions are for part of the complex to be operational by Autumn 2017.

PSL Land Ltd were due a decision on their plans to develop the studio complex at Old Pentland, Straiton, Loanhead, in September but Midlothian Council refused to determine the proposals until the developer took into account the proposed routing of the new A701 bypass, which is planned to dissect the site. The board of industry figures behind the film studio maintained their opposition to the council’s forthcoming development plan and as such faced a delay until June 2016 when the council would be able to consider their application under the new planning policies. This setback led to the developer’s plea to the Scottish Government to “call-in” the plans to ultimately overrule the local authority’s decision. However, two weeks ago Scottish Ministers refused the plea on grounds that they would only rule on projects of “national importance” and whilst they agreed there was “major potential” they would not be calling it in.

Comment: Decision About Much More Than a Film Studio

Scottish Ministers are stepping into risky territory by calling in this application.

On the surface, it appears to be nothing more than the described development on greenbelt land. However the situation is far more complex than that.

Had PSLL Ltd submitted their plans two years ago, they would have been considered under the council’s RP2 ‘Protection of the Green Belt’ and RP4 ‘Prime Agricultural Land’ policies which protect the land, categorising it as greenfield land that is integral to the characteristics of the area.

However, Midlothian Council is now in the late stages of completing its government sanctioned Local Development Plan for the forthcoming five years. This will be ratified by the Summer recess next year. That may appear harmless but what it really means for any major development projects is that we’re currently in a limbo period, where the project can neither be considered under the current policy or the forthcoming one. If considered under the current policies, the project may then conflict with any policies that arise next year, or if considered under the future policies, there is no guarantee that further changes won’t be made to planning policy closer to full ratification next year, perhaps contrasting with the application’s consent agreements.

In the case of the film studio, from June next year it would be considered solely under a new policy safeguarding the route of the A701 bypass, which is forecast to bisect the site. Policies RP2 and RP4 will be removed from the designation of the land to facilitate this new policy and to encourage development as part of the council’s masterplan for a “Gateway” to the county comprised of a new shopping and leisure area to rival the Gyle Shopping Centre and Fort Kinnaird.

Ministers are now in the very difficult position where they could be influencing local planning policy by approving a development on land that is to be dedicated to infrastructure. As a planning official from the council said “the development plan could fall” due to its reliance on the proposed routing of the bypass. If approval is given by the government for the plans in their current state, Midlothian Council will have to halt the Local Development Plan process and rush through an amendment to the routing, likely seeing it divert to the west of Cameron Woods through Damhead. This would then have to be consulted upon and would have a knock on effect to the council’s other policies to encourage house building in the southern portion of the route. It could end up in significant delay to the development plan process and would lead to serious questions about the effectiveness of local planning.

Of course there are ways around this. Midlothian Council has repeatedly asked the developer to consider incorporating the new road into their development. Rightly enough, they refused on grounds of security concerns and general suitability, imagine having a backlot on one side of the road and another on the the other side, it would be inconvenient and certainly not why the developers chose Straiton out of 28 other sites throughout the country. However in the final weeks of negotiation before the appeal to the government, the design firm behind proposals submitted revised plans incorporating a buffer zone to the west of the development between Cameron Woods and the studios. This was to be a compromise to accommodate the road, though it remains off the currently proposed routing. Should the developer now submit its own funded research into a proposed new routing, they may be able to entice the council and the government into looking upon the application more favourably.

As it stands, the Scottish Government can’t do much good. If they give permission in the plan’s current form, they will overrule the democratic process that has led to the currently proposed development plan, negating the purpose of local planning policies. If they refuse they will be rejecting perhaps one of the best chances they’ve had, and may ever get, in establishing a national film studio. Neither option is right.

With the proposed Edinburgh and Lothians City Deal looming, the opportunity to develop the A701 bypass quickly is ever present. The Scottish Government should now engage with Midlothian Council and the Film Studio developers to figure out a route that will make the majority happy. If that can’t be done, then the government’s ministers better be prepared for the consequences that will follow their decision, either which way.