The Subplot | Succession, Big Bang 2.0, shed frenzy
Welcome to The Subplot, your regular slice of commentary on the business and property market from across the North of England and North Wales.
- Succession: Northern film and TV studios hope to pick up where London and the South East leave off
- Elevator pitch: your weekly rundown of who is going up, and who is heading the other way
WHAT LOGAN ROY WOULD HAVE WANTED
The Great Northern Studio Stampede
So many studio development plans, so few actually delivering. Why is the stampede running into so much quicksand?
It costs about £2m an hour to make a high-quality TV drama, and a lot more to make stunners like HBO’s Succession – whose jaw-dropping finale (no spoilers, promise) aired last week. So it is no surprise Northern real estate wants a piece of the action in a UK film production business that recently ballooned to about £69bn a year.
There’s no space
The opportunity, and the problem, is a massive shortage of good quality studio floorspace, as figures released Tuesday by CBRE seem to show. The brokerage talked to film and TV professionals and heard 53% of respondents say they expect to use more studio space next year. On-set office space, broadcast studio space, and conversion stage space are expected to see the greatest increase, with eight out of 10 respondents saying they expect to use more or the same amount of this type of space over the coming year. Many reckon the studios they get offered are poor quality.
The North is no also-ran in this business. Asked to name their top three production locations, the industry leaders in this poll named the North East and Yorkshire (both 20%) – only a shade less cited than Southern locations (21%). Strangely, East Anglia and the East Midlands came top.
No wonder every landlord with vaguely suitable space is chasing studio opportunities. Some hugely ambitious plans abound – not just in Liverpool (the former Littlewoods Pools HQ in Edge Lane) but in Yorkshire (330,000 sq ft of studio space as part of very mixed-use plans at Scotch Corner) and a truly Titanic proposal for 1.6m sq ft in and around a former submarine dock in Sunderland, developed in association with Kajima Partnership. The first phase of the Sunderland plan slid unobtrusively through planning in November 2022, and the talk is of completion by 2027.
Big inputs, small outputs
We can put all this excitement into numbers thanks to CBRE, which says there are currently UK development proposals for 11.2m sq ft, all at various stages of preparation, but just one new scheme is expected to become available in 2023. That’s the puzzle: why is so little popping out at the far end of the pipeline?
Answer option one is that a lot of the proposals were quick-fix or rubbish. CBRE’s studio occupier lead Simon Calvert acts for the big production companies, and is far too polite to say it out loud. Even so, the subtext is clear. “There is a real need for developers to ensure that new studios that are in the pipeline reach the quality standards demanded by occupiers if the UK is to maintain its position on the global production stage. Developments which are not well located or do not provide suitable stages, production spaces, and amenities risk being under-occupied,” he says.
Option two is that this is complicated and it’s easy to go wrong. Thus, demand for full sound stages is good, but weaker than demand for other things like workshops and offices. Or that post-production space is a real constraint, or the amenities aren’t good enough. CBRE head of research Jennet Siebrits tells Subplot: “The nuances are interesting. Productions want to be in a cluster so they know the specialist people they need will be available, which is why space at Elstree or Pinewood is super-oversubscribed and there’s a waiting list.”
Option three is that this is a gold rush and mostly froth, as bunny-in-the-headlamps developers search for real estate options that don’t look automatically hobbled by recessionary risk. Subplot is old enough to remember a similar time in the late 1980s when specialty retail was the Hot New Thing that might work, when all around was ashes, and every site of every description everywhere suddenly grew a boutique mall. Naturally, they got nowhere (see Manchester’s Great Northern Warehouse) and where they got built, they failed (see Tobacco Wharf). Siebrits doesn’t like this explanation. “Investors want to make money on credible schemes and developers want to be successful, and demand is huge, and the UK really does punch above its weight in TV and film production,” she says.
The fourth and final option is the happiest. “I hope things are moving slowly because developers are being cautious and diligent about what they build, and that slow movement is a good sign,” says Siebrits.
Someday soon we’ll find out.
Going up, or going down? This week’s movers
Plans to free billions of pounds from the pensions industry get stuck between floors, whilst the logistics sector shows no sign of cooling – yet. Doors closing!
Regular readers will be following the fate of Solvency II-linked reforms from which Boris Johnson’s government intended to release £14bn in pension and insurance funds to pay for a huge levelling-up infrastructure boost and capital for growing businesses. Politicians of all parties love it because it’s monster money that doesn’t come from taxes, but everyone else suspects it’s too good to be true. By spring this year (Subplot 16 March), the idea wasn’t faring well: it didn’t get a mention in the Budget, with announcements pushed back to the autumn, while the Bank of England seems dead against it, warning the chances of pension and insurance companies going bust is too high to tap them even a bit.
Given that the preferred route seems blocked, or tricky, or comes with a high price, ministers are now reported (by the FT) to be toying with a plan to coax some of the UK’s 5,000 private sector defined benefit pension schemes into a new umbrella which could do the investing instead (or as well, this is all very cloudy). These pots contain about £1.4tn. Even a small proportion of that could be worth having if it allowed the schemes to do things that, as company schemes with impacts on company balance sheets, they otherwise could not. The downside is it requires legislation, membership won’t be compulsory, defined benefit pensioners are in uproar, and there’s no way you could tell the new super-fund to invest in whatever the government wanted because it would have the same duty to beneficiaries that the old company schemes have.
It all sounds a mighty faff, particularly since lack of money isn’t really the problem: the government has lots of dosh that it could spend in the North, if it wanted to, while researchers say viable high-growth businesses have no trouble accessing capital, just lots of doubts it’s worth the bother.
Peel-Glencar press on with 240,000 sq ft at Bootle, while funders back 210,000 sq ft at Ellesmere Port – the last few days brought another good crop of announcements about the still fairly hot shed market. But there’s also a small straw in the wind. BNP Paribas Real Estate has calculated that over-optimistic tenants have returned 4.1m sq ft of new warehouses to the market, via subleases. So far this has been overwhelmingly in the East Midlands, where they stand the best chance of subletting to a wide pool of prospective tenants.
BNP Paribas Real Estate reckons that there’s around 5m sq ft available in the North West, of which just 235,000 sq ft is offered on sublease or assigned terms. In Yorkshire, there’s 3m sq ft, of which 580,000 sq ft is available on sublease. So nothing to worry about yet. But worth watching.
Get in touch with David Thame: email@example.com