Wycombe Film Studios (Wycombe Air Park)

Temporary stage from 2022.  Rest of studios from 2024?

 

Stage 50 is a company that builds fully equipped sound stages in just 4 months.  They have constructed two at Farnborough and are building six at Winnersh.  In September 2022 they submitted a planning application to construct 8 sound stages plus workshops and production offices at Wycombe Air Park, to be known as Wycombe Film Studios.  Full permission was granted in March 2023.  The studios will open in phases and will take about 18 months to be completed.

 

The story of how this scheme came about is quite involved, as it has affected the previous activities on the airfield, which is used by single engine private planes and helicopters but also by a gliding club.  The new studios will not disturb the activities of the powered aircraft, as they use a runway that sits well to the north of the studios.  However, the triangle of land that the studios occupy is owned by the local council, who decided a few years ago to make it available as a site for commercial activity.  Unfortunately, this area was being used by the gliding club, so they have been affected by the council’s decision.  Gliding has now resumed but to discover more about all this, read on!

The proposed studios, as submitted in the latest planning application.

 

 

On 23rd September 2021 a planning application was made by Stage 50 to use the southern corner of Wycombe Air Park (otherwise known as Booker Airfield) as a filming location.  Three exterior sets were due to be constructed, with filming beginning in April 2022.  A separate application proposed a temporary sound stage and two workshop buildings.  It would appear that permission was granted on 18th November for both applications, allowing the land to be used for filming until August 2022.  (My understanding is that this filming did not in fact take place.)

Interestingly, yet another application was lodged on 28th September relating to the same triangle of land.  This too was made by Stage 50.  Their application here was for an additional stage at 32,000 sq ft plus the other previously mentioned one at 21,000 sq ft.  They also proposed to build a total of 6 temporary workshops.  As you can see, this is all terribly confusing, with 3 separate planning applications relating to the same triangle of land.

The third application stated that the temporary erection of the units was required to accommodate the specific needs of an international production company who required the use of these facilities to support filming associated with a global film franchise.  They also stated that a range of other TV or film productions may also use the space over the period of 2 years.

The approximate area of the new film studios.  I am informed by one of the members of Booker Gliding Club that before this land was separated off by the council, they used the large area inside the red triangle west of the runway for takeoff and landings, and the area east of it for trailer parking and to rig and derig gliders.  Another pilot has told me that the area inside the red triangle was often used as a convenient landing area as well as a location to rig and derig gliders before and after a day’s flying.  The main runway 06/24 is not used by gliders.  I have read that the north-south grass runway 35 is no longer is use.

 

As I say, this third application was for 2 years, which could of course in theory be extended upon another application.  In fact, on 29th March 2022, an amended application was submitted, which requested permission for 5 years.  At this point in time, permission for the second stage had not, it seems, been passed.  According to the council’s website at the beginning of April, the status was ‘awaiting decision.’  However, it appears that some construction work had at this point commenced – relating to Stage 1.  In fact, a drawing submitted by Stage 50 showing the changes to the proposals indicates that Stage 1 had been granted planning permission ‘under ref: 21/07862/PNP4E.

To further add to the confusion, on 1st April 2022 yet another application was made, modifying the one made shortly before.  This added another two temporary stages at the western end of the site.  These will each be 26,000 sq ft and joined together in a single building.  The ridge height will be 19.5 m.  So, as well as stage 1 which has already received planning permission, there would now also be stages 2, 3 and 4.  Two more workshops were also proposed, making 8 in total.

 

An aerial photo of the site taken on 28th August 2022.  Stage 1 is clearly seen but no other stages or workshops.  There is no evidence of filming-related vehicles or exterior film sets on the site. Interestingly, a number of glider trailers appear to be parked in the area operated by the film studios.
photo thanks to Steve Sharpe

 

According to local reports, following the commencement of construction, the airfield manager suspended gliding activities at the airfield as he considered it to be unsafe.  A number of people objected to the planning application on the grounds that some long-term proposed changes to gliding activity, moving it to the north of the main runway, had not yet happened.  They mentioned that the Wycombe District Local Plan states that any proposed developments in the southern corner of the airfield should ‘Demonstrate that they do not compromise or limit the operation of the aviation uses, including gliding, at the Air Park’.

It is worth pointing out that the airfield has been a popular centre for this activity for more than 70 years.

It is also worth noting that from reading the letters on the planning website, some people seemed to be unaware that permission had been granted for the first stage.  The council’s website is not at all clear with both of the original applications having the same title – ‘…construction of stage set, associated parking and filming’ even though one relates to exterior ‘back lot’ filming and the other to the erection of buildings.  There is one digit different in the reference number between the two applications – hence I suspect the confusion.  It is also perhaps worth mentioning that the council’s website states that the land involved is on the north of the airfield when in fact it is on the south.  Hmm.

 

The rather confusingly worded form on the council’s website.  North or South?  And what exactly is a ‘stage set?’  That’s something I would expect to find in a theatre.

 

I was contacted by people from Booker Gliding Club, who were understandably very angry that this temporary development had gone ahead, thus preventing all flying by gliders.  They informed me that:

‘The 23 September applications were submitted as prior notification under Part 5 Class E ‘permitted development’.  These were immediately (incorrectly) approved by the council when they should have been rejected because:
 
1. Permitted development is not allowed in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding National Beauty.
2. The applications impact (prevent) gliding, in direct conflict with the council’s own local plan.
3. The sound stages are too close to the boundary for permitted development.
 
Construction to date also conflicts with the permitted development requirements because the sound stages are over 18m tall (limit for permitted development is 15m as stated in the applications).’

 

NB – according to the plans on the council’s website the ridge height of stage 1 is 18.2m.

 

At the beginning of May 2022 Stage 50 issued a press release that the members of the gliding club must have greeted with dismay.  They were now proposing a permanent film studio on the site, with 8 sound stages and associated production offices and workshops.  Although still utilising the modular aluminium and steel structure of the rapid build stages they have developed, these buildings will appear rather more permanent.  Their sides will be a combination of graded panelling and green walls, enabling them to blend into the landscape.

 

 

Stage 50 pointed out that in 2019 the proposed site for Wycombe Film Studios was allocated as a strategic employment area in the Local Plan for Wycombe District, with the adjacent Air Park remaining in situ.  So, the issue with the gliding club appeared to be a problem between them and Buckinghamshire Council rather than with Stage 50 themselves.  The company was simply taking the opportunity of utilising this land that had been made available by the council.

The company is emphasising the local employment opportunities that the studios will provide.  They say that once the studios are operational, they will create 750 full time jobs and support 450 indirect jobs in the supply chain.  They will also be offering 25 apprenticeships annually.  Stage 50 estimate that the studios will generate £305m economic output (GVA).  Certainly, the location of these studios is very good, with excellent communications via the M40 and sitting nicely within the cluster of major studios west of London.  The proposed Marlow Studios are a short distance away.  Pinewood, Leavesden, Bray and Shinfield are only a half hour drive and Shepperton, Elstree, Longcross and Winnersh about 40-45 minutes.

 

The site plan, indicating the various stages, workshops and other supporting facilities.

 

Some good news!  I was contacted by Stage 50 and informed that gliding has now resumed at the airfield since September 10th.  They were very aware of the issue and had taken steps to ensure that the gliders could return before submitting the planning application.  So well done to them.  However, unfortunately it seems that the situation is not entirely satisfactory to the gliding club.  I have been told the following by one of its members:

 

‘When the council split off the southern part of the airfield for development (film studio) the airfield manager prevented gliding at Booker, on grounds it would be unsafe.  As you can imagine, two years without access to our airfield has had a significant impact.  However, against all the odds, the gliding club has survived through the sheer determination and hard work of its committee and loyal membership.

Unfortunately, the council have refused to honour their promise to relocate the gliding operation north of the hard runway, before developing the southern area.  To recommence operation, the gliding club has therefore been forced to accept the reduced area between the film studio and the hard runway, with each glider launch now requiring individual permission by radio.  These limitations directly conflict with the council’s local plan which required that any development would not limit the gliding operation.

Stage 50 have been very supportive of the gliding club.  We all hope gliding at Booker will recover its position as the thriving and successful centre of excellence it was before the development.’

 

It’s a relief to hear that the relationship between Stage 50 and Booker Gliding Club is good and they are doing their best to make the arrangement work.  However, very disappointing to hear that the local council don’t appear to be playing their part.  If you are from the council and can explain your point of view, I would be more than happy to include it here.  Let’s hope that sense can prevail, and full gliding activity can resume as soon as possible.

 

The formal planning application was submitted in September 2022.  The proposed scheme has taken into account the views of local residents and appears to be well thought-through.  Much consideration has been given to the appearance of the buildings from various viewpoints.   Environmental and sustainability issues are particularly emphasised in the planning documents.

Full permission was granted in March 2023 and Stage 50 stated that the facilities would be completed within the following 18 months.  However, in February 2024 no construction had taken place thus far – the only stage on site was the original one.  The studio’s website simply said that the rest of the facilities would be ‘coming soon.’

In November 2023 Stage 50 announced a new partnership with Universal Production Services, who now provide all lighting and other equipment in their studios.  

 

Stage 1 seen from the airfield in February 2024.  No progress in building the rest of the studios was apparent at this date.
photo thanks to Steve Sharpe