10 June 2024

Nimby Watch: Buckinghamshire’s cinematic Nimbyism


For this week’s edition of ‘Nimby Watch’, Jonn Elledge takes us to Buckinghamshire, where a broad coalition of Nimbys has blocked a new film studio backed by James Cameron to protect a gravel pit…

Right, where are we going this week? To Buckinghamshire, a realm of rolling hills and picturesque villages, tragically cursed with being at the heart of one of Britain’s most successful export industries. Luckily for its people, though, an unlikely group of heroes have emerged in the form of an MP, a prospective MP, a county council and some angry locals, who’ve banded together to prevent the blight of things like ‘jobs’, ‘infrastructure’ and ‘a thriving economy’.

Oh right, no mucking about this week, then. Seriously, this one’s really annoying. This one’s everything that’s gone wrong with this entire bloody country, encapsulated in the single word ‘no’.

Do pray tell. The UK film production industry has been booming for a while, thanks to a series of generous tax breaks: in 2021, a report from Knight Frank found that it had essentially doubled in value between 2016 and 2021. That means, though, it needs room to grow: by 2026, the same report found, it would need twice as much studio space to keep up with demand, an additional 6 million square feet.

Hence, the plan for Marlow Film Studios. Designed by Jason Prior of Prior & Partners, the guy who masterplanned the London 2012 Olympic Park, as well as award-winning architects Wilkinson Eyre, the new facility would provide 4,000 new jobs slap bang in the middle of an industry cluster that stretches all the way around the north west corner of the M25.

And what’s there now? This is the best bit: a gravel quarry. Well, actually, a former gravel quarry, next to a dual carriageway, the A404. The site is, essentially, empty. 

But that’s not all! To sweeten the deal, the developers are proposing a bunch of fancy sounding stuff involving living roofs, green walls, solar panels and trees, which add up to a net biodiversity gain of 20%. They’re also promising to invest in local road junctions and cycle routes, and to pay for two new bus services, to mitigate the impact on local traffic.

The plan has been backed by James Cameron, who wrote to the council saying he’d move his company Lightstorm 3D there. It’s also had support from the likes of Andy Serkis, Richard Curtis and Jeremy Irons.

Buckinghamshire Council finally considered the proposal during a six hour planning meeting on 30 May…

…and they turned it down because…? ‘Inappropriate development on Greenbelt’.

On a quarry? On a quarry.

Oh, forThe Bucks Herald began its write-up of the decision thus:

Buckinghamshire’s general election candidates have celebrated the refusal of planning permission for a proposed film studio backed by Avatar director James Cameron.

‘Celebrated’? They’re damaging the local economy, and prospective MPs are ‘celebrating’? And it’s true. Joy Morrisey, the Tory MP for Beaconsfield – a former actress, whose husband works in the film industry, but that’s by the by – said it had been a ‘privilege to work with [a bunch of growth deniers wrecking the local economy under the name Save Marlow’s Green Belt] in fighting to protect [what is, let’s not forget, a disused gravel pit]’. She even had the gall to tell the developers, via Facebook, not to waste everyone’s time by appealing.

I’m assuming the Lib Dem is no better? ‘I am thrilled that democracy has prevailed at Bucks Council and local people have been heard [about how disused gravel pits matter more than biodiversity or jobs],’ said Liberal Democrat challenger Anna Crabtree. ‘The UK film industry is an important national asset that we should all support. However’ – you can hear the next bit coming a mile off –  ‘this was an inappropriate development for the country park site and could not be justified economically.’

What about Labour? Hasn’t commented but also locally irrelevant. The voters of Beaconsfield have a choice of Nimbys.

Incidentally, the local parish did its own five-hour long poll, in which 18% of the local electorate turned out: 1,730 (85%) voted against the proposal, 302 (15%) in favour. 

That seems pretty definitive. It is, however, substantially less than the 5,200 letters written in support of the scheme. Never mind that this might benefit the regional or national economy. Never mind that it would bring money into the area, improve transport links, support a major growth industry and be greener than what it replaces. A couple of thousand locals don’t want it, and so it won’t be built – and another major British economic success story can go hang. 

And whoever the next MP is, they’ll support them. You know, I think we just solved the productivity puzzle.

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.