Did Borough Council ‘predetermine’ planning application?
On 24th March 2021 Wokingham Borough Council’s Planning Committee granted Shinfield Studios planning permission to set up in Thames Valley Science Park.
The film studios already had a keen supporter: John Halsall, leader of Wokingham Borough Council and Council Executive member. The previous December, he’d given interviews to two local papers. The first was in Wokingham Today, 17th December 2020:-
‘The local economy was full of new businesses prepared to invest in the borough, Cllr Halsall said, citing the planning application that has been lodged to build the largest purpose-built film studio in the UK at a site in Shinfield…The Blackhall Studios would “bring major Hollywood film productions to the UK and create up to 3,000 jobs”.’
And in Bracknell News, the next day:-
‘John Halsall, leader of Wokingham Borough Council, said: "This is very welcome news for people in Wokingham and the wider region. Wokingham has a strong record of supporting world-class businesses, including existing links with the film industry.”
Up to 3,000 jobs to be created! No wonder Mr Halsall called it ‘Very welcome news for people in Wokingham’! His enthusiasm for the film studios plan stood out a mile. Only one thing wasn’t so clear. Should a member of the Council Executive have been speaking in favour of a planning application three months before it had been approved by the Council? Wasn’t he ‘predetermining’ the outcome of the planning application that would later have to be considered by the Council’s planning committee?
Recently, we SOLVE Hall Farm campaigners were given chapter and verse on the subject of ‘predetermination’. We received information from the WBC legal department that Council decision-makers, including the present Council Leader Clive Jones, are prevented from expressing a view on a matter relating to a planning decision. A debate on our petition against the proposed Hall Farm housing development couldn't take place, we were told, because councillors giving opinions on it would ‘predetermine’ the eventual planning decision.
So, fellow residents, that’s where Wokingham Borough Council appears to stand on the √matter: If you're a Tory council leader called John Halsall, you can express a view on an upcoming planning decision matter. If you're a LibDem council leader called Clive Jones, you can't.
BUT surely, you might say, the Shinfield Studios plan was such a big win for the local community that from a commonsense point of view there wasn’t anything wrong with John Halsall speaking in favour of it, was there? ‘Up to 3,000 jobs’ - that sounded like a massive boost to the borough’s economy and employment prospects, so he was simply saying what the Council would have decided anyway. The studios ‘would bring new jobs in the creative industries to the Thames Valley Science Park’, according to Wokingham Today (4th February 2021), who quoted Reading University’s Professor Gibbs saying “I am particularly excited about the potential opportunities it could create for students and the local community”. And again the following August the paper told us ‘The site is expected to create 1,500 direct jobs, plus 1,363 indirect roles.’
Perhaps, but things have yet to turn out as the then Council Leader was hoping. Anyone looking for a job at Shinfield Studios, now in their second year of operation, will get this reply from leading employment website uk.indeed.com:-
‘There are no current vacancies.
Please note, Shinfield does not employ anyone directly to work on film or television
production at the studios. Productions that use our studios employ their crew directly.’
So Shinfield Studios doesn’t itself employ people in the creative industries. Uh-huh, so where do studios get the film crews from? I’ve tried to find out more. A specialist discussion of how to classify film studios by region stated online :-
Shinfield Studios, Near Reading. Should this studio be included in ‘London’s Film Studios’
or the ‘Rest of the UK?’ [A]rguably the reason these studios are to be located here is
because of their proximity to Heathrow and the M4. Also, they are only 30 mins from Bray,
35 mins from Pinewood, 40 mins from Shepperton and 50 mins from Leavesden (all on a
good day!). The point being that the crews working in these new studios will be the same
freelancers who will be working in all those other major London studios too.
It seems the crews won't be needing local creative talent from this area. In fact, according to the managing director last December, ‘To date our customers have been US studios’. The companies apparently brought their own film production teams with them from the USA.
As for the management of Shinfield Studios, they mostly don’t live in Berkshire, never mind Wokingham borough. To judge from their LinkedIn profiles, the studios so far provide local employment for just one person, the Studio Operations Assistant. As shown on the job ad for the post, he is ‘responsible for maintaining a clean, tidy, well-presented site’ and for ‘facility / room setup and grounds clearance’. Don’t get me wrong, filming operations would surely come to a halt very quickly without this essential person. But the point is, there’s no evidence here of Shinfield Studios providing high-skilled technical employment to local people, as we might have expected thanks to all the hype from the Council, the University and the media.
NEXT TIME: Why John Halsall did nothing wrong!