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This Isn’t About the Greenbelt

Development in Midlothian is coming, it is inevitable, the question we have to ask ourselves is: do we seize on the unfamiliar or welcome the uninspiring?

The Scottish Government are currently pondering over two critical proposals for Midlothian: the much delayed Straiton (Old Pentland to be exact) Film Studio plans and the much consulted upon Midlothian Local Development Plan. To an extent, they are one in the same.

How can proposals for an entire county be the same as a proposal for one small development, I hear you ask?

Land. Midlothian is not short of it. The government knows this, so do the local administration. To them, it is the answer to problems of great magnitude: housing shortages, infrastructure shortcomings, rampaging consumerism. To us, it is our morning walk, the view from our staircase window, the place where we watch our children learn and grow. It is a precious commodity that many of us take for granted.

Unfortunately for Midlothian, our time for appreciation is running out. Not to sound the pessimistic klaxon, but there is nothing we can do to stop it. All we can hope for is that the urban sprawl is well designed, environmentally friendly and ultimately, rich with thriving communities. This brings me nicely onto what Midlothian Council calls “West Straiton”.

Formerly occupied by bings and mines, this land to the west of the A701 between the City Bypass and Bilston, is largely unmediated, contaminated and barren. Yes, there are pockets of agricultural use but for the most part, it is prime development land, perfect to quench the thirst of shoppers or to provide habitation to the home short masses. That is why, in their proposed and locally approved Development Plan, Midlothian Council delisted the land from being part of the protected greenbelt to instead being just part of the countryside. Once the Scottish Government approves the plan, which in all likelihood they will, the land at “West Straiton” will no longer warrant protection from development. Development, then, will be a certainty.

If development is coming, we must ask ourselves what sort of development we want. Do we want a myriad of cardboard cutout, uninspiring, detached houses? Do we want a collection of tin shed supermarkets or even a Trafford Centre style shopping centre? Or do we want something surprising, different and unique? This is the question posed to us by those behind £140M proposals to create Scotland’s first film studio complex on the land at West Straiton.

Faced with this question, Midlothian Council was dumbstruck; it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Scottish Government was supposed to approve the council’s proposals to create an A701 bypass between Easter Bush and the City Bypass, thus opening up hectares of Greenbelt land to create the “Midlothian Gateway”, a council facilitated retail development to take the battle to Edinburgh City Centre. Instead, PSL Land Ltd put a spanner in the works by proposing to develop directly on the route of the realigned road. Oops. Here we have it, the money of the developers against the pride of the council. Could they possibly consider abandoning their own proposals to seize upon a once in a lifetime opportunity? The answer does not matter now, for the decision is regrettably out of their hands.

From the outside looking in, the situation is quite laughable. The Scottish Government will shortly decide the fate of Midlothian’s Local Development Plan by deciding whether or not to allow the creation of an economical boon on soon to be delisted greenbelt land. Should the Government chose to approve the film studio complex, they will allow a development that will throw the council’s flagship A701 bypass proposals into disarray, with no route and no funding from development along the route. On the other hand, should the government refuse, then the Local Development Plan will likely pass unaltered, the council will be allowed to build their road and the land freed up will be occupied by shops, car parks and the occasional petrol station. This however, will be years, maybe even a decade away. In the meantime there would be no film studio, no economic boon and no possibility of sky rocketing tourism.

There are problems with the film studio complex proposals, it has to be said. The land owner will need to remove a tenant farmer from the site and the proposed power plant may or may not turn out to be a little larger than originally proposed. However, it is important to remember that this is a planning battle. If I so wanted to, I could submit an application to build a waterpark on the side of Carnethy Hill. Matters of ownership and status of habitation are not part of planning policy and nor should they be part of civilised discussion about the design merits of a planning application. Campaigners have been quick to seek the dismissal of this planning application to protect a resident farmer but this is a matter for the courts not for planning process. It must also be remembered that the application in question is only for the principle of the development. Exact design details will be approved in a new application to the council, which will be open to the public for consultation.

Nobody wants to become part of Edinburgh, to be one endless developed tentacle from Burdiehouse to Penicuik but in all likelihood that can be the only outcome of the surging population, especially through current planning policy. Given the chance to create something a little different, a little unexpected and a lot exciting, we should seize upon it. A Film Studio might not be as aesthetically pleasing as a well ploughed field but its a damn sight better than a four storey Tesco Extra. It’s time to stop dithering, the Scottish Government must approve plans for the Scottish International Film Studio.

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