A much-disputed plan for a £250 million Scottish film studio on the outskirts of Edinburgh has been delayed, causing critics to question its future.
Developers have disowned their earlier predictions that Pentland Studios, proposed near Straiton in Midlothian, would open in 2018. They are now refusing to set a timetable because of “the planning process”.
News of the delay comes as The Ferret publishes an open letter to filmmakers in Scotland urging a rethink of their support for the project. Problems with re-routing a road and evicting a farmer mean it will be at least four or five years before work can even begin, the letter argues.
The Scottish Government gave notice of its intention to grant planning permission in principle for Pentland Studios in April 2017. Ministers overturned a recommendation from their planning reporter to refuse permission because of the damage that would be done to Edinburgh’s green belt.
At the time the BBC and The Scotsman reported statements from the developers, PSL Land, saying that the studio would open in 2018. The company talked of “construction scheduling that will enable delivery of the key studio operation by late 2018.”
But when questioned about the timetable by The Ferret, the developers accepted that “planning considerations did take longer than PSL was originally advised”. They declined to give a new opening date, insisting instead that “at no point has any definitive date been officially announced for the studio to be in operation”.
Planning approval for the studio was conditional on agreeing arrangements for re-routing a proposed A701 relief road, including funding from PSL. The government said approval would be suspended until October 2017 until such arrangements were in place.
In order to access the land for the studio, a tenant farmer, Jim Telfer, and his family also have to be evicted. But they are protected under law in ways that mean that the process could drag on for years.
Alison Piper, an assistant director on films such as Outlander, T2 Trainspotting, and Sunshine On Leith, has investigated the problems in bringing the studio to fruition. She has written a detailed, 11-page report entitled “The Emperor of Pentland Studios Wears No Clothes” arguing that it inevitably faces long delays.
Piper said that PSL is likely to run into a lengthy court battle with Telfer, whose tenancy is protected by rarely tested laws. “I find it improbable that the company behind Pentland Studios, PSL Land Ltd, will be authorised to break ground within the next four to five years,” she added.
As film and TV practitioners we would be wise to consider, at this stage, whether we should continue to support Pentland Studios in perpetuity Alison Piper, assistant film director
“I would suggest that as film and TV practitioners we would be wise to consider, at this stage, whether we should continue to support Pentland Studios in perpetuity.
“Perhaps we should think critically and pragmatically about the extent to which we lobby for the advancement of Pentland Studios. Perhaps we should be campaigning for more realistic developments?”
Piper thought it was important that PSL had acknowledged there was no definitive date for when the studio would open. “The future of the Scottish film industry will be hugely affected by the delivery of a studio,” she said.
“So it’s important to fact check certain newspaper articles which have falsely declared the project ‘green-lit’ with the hope the studio can be operational by the end of 2018.”
She was backed by the Green MSP for Lothian and land reform campaigner, Andy Wightman, who has opposed the development. “I am heartened to see this intelligent and well-informed critique of the proposal to build a film studio,” he said.
“It is time that other voices within the film industry recognised that, although there is widespread support for a film studio, it must be built in the right place.”
However, the Association of Film and Television Practitioners Scotland defended its backing for the project. “AFTPS supports any bid to build professional sound stages in Scotland, including the Pentland Studios, after scrutiny from its members,” said the association’s spokesperson, Belle Doyle.
AFTPS supports any bid to build professional sound stages in Scotland, including the Pentland Studios, after scrutiny from its members Belle Doyle, Association of Film and Television Practitioners Scotland
“We would like to see many more such developments in Scotland, put forward by similar credible, experienced developers. Meanwhile, we will continue our work in leaky sheds with no soundproofing and no blackout.”
Doyle argued that the need for several professional sound stages in Scotland was not disputed. “Anyone who knows anything about large scale film-making knows that it is an industrial process and for this we need industrial scale infrastructure,” she said.
PSL Land denied that the Pentland Studios would be delayed for years. “Earlier planning considerations did take longer than PSL was originally advised,” a company spokeswoman said.
“However meanwhile we have also continued to have very constructive discussions with government and all relevant authorities and are on course to provide a world-class film studio development for Scotland on the Pentland site.”
According to the spokeswoman, the necessary arrangements for the A701 relief road had been agreed with Midlothian Council, and would soon be submitted for finalisation. “The exact timing is subject to the planning process and we are confident the project’s momentum will continue to proceed apace,” she said.
“We are very encouraged by the widespread support the project continues to attract both from the screen industries and others.”
She added: “At no point has any definitive date been officially announced for the studio to be in operation.”
The exact timing was subject to the planning process, she said. “As and when that is finalised, a definite date will be determined and announced.”
The local landowner, freelance copywriter Nick Gibsone, is trying to evict Telfer to make way for the studio development. “The land court resumption process is now underway and it would be inappropriate to comment in detail whilst it is before the court,” he told The Ferret.
“We do not agree with the position as portrayed in the letter. It is not automatic that all decisions can or will be appealed. The courts can take into account commercial necessity and it is untrue to suggest that the legal processes are circular. There is a clear legal process which is not particularly unusual and is being followed.”
Gibsone has been trying outwith the legal process to encourage Telfer to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. “That door remains open although past offers and attempts to mediate have been rejected by Mr Telfer,” he said.
“It is unhelpful to all concerned for apparent supporters of Mr Telfer to distort facts in the media.”
Telfer has been advised by his lawyers not to discuss his tenancy dispute with the media now that legal proceedings have begun.
Midlothian Council said it was working on arrangements for the A701 relief road, with the aim of implementing the project without delay. “We are intending and expecting that the council and the applicants will have concluded the necessary planning obligation legal agreement within the timescale set by ministers,” stated a council spokesman.
An Open Letter to the Scottish Film Industry
A version of the open letter with active links can be viewed here.