Sounding Off… an occasional commentary
Chartered town planner Janet Askew, currently the head of the Department of Planning and Architecture at the University of the West of England in Bristol, worked as a planner for Shetland Islands Council between 1976 and 1983. She retains her interest in planning in Shetland, returning frequently as a visitor, and believes the siting of the Anderson High School is a chance for the SIC to think again.“The Anderson institute is a building of . . . outstanding importance, and the influence radiating from it has been . . . widely and beneficially diffused throughout the whole islands from the time it was erected to the present day . . .” (Manson, 1923).
And so it was that the Anderson Educational Institute was described by Thomas Manson in 1923. Will future generations be able to describe the new school on the Knab in the same way, some 60 years after it is completed? I doubt it.
The current proposal to re-build the Anderson High School presents a poorly designed, ill-conceived new building which has no reference to the proud history of the site, nor to its commanding location overlooking the south mouth of the harbour – arguably one of the finest entrances to any harbour in the United Kingdom.
Although it has already been granted planning permission, there remains a chance for the SIC to overturn its misguided decision, and even re-consider whether or not the Knab is the best location for a modern school.
That Shetland needs a new school is apparently not in doubt. Reports suggest that the existing school is in a poor state of repair, and the additions to the original add nothing to the townscape of Lerwick, themselves badly built in the 1970s.
The building of a new school offers the opportunity to create something which will endure, but in order to achieve this a much more sensitive approach has to be taken to its design and location. The new Shetland Museum and Archives at Hay’s Dock is testament to the fact that with careful design, an iconic building can be provided.
Unfortunately, the proposal currently under consideration does not do this. What exactly is wrong with it? Why does it not come up to the standards that might be expected of such a major decision for a small community? Is it really the best that can be achieved?
There are several reasons why the SIC should think again about the school: 1. The design and the impact on the townscape of Lerwick; 2. The impact on the setting of three important historic listed buildings; 3. The lack of time given for a proper consideration of the issues, including the most appropriate location and design.
Turning first to the design, the proposal is for a building of up to five storeys high, surrounded by car parking, a monolithic structure, rising above and obscuring the views of the historic original school with no regard for the topography.
This is not to say that a large scale building cannot be accommodated on this site – it could be – take Lerwick Town Hall for example and its dominant position on the skyline, expressing the confidence of the local burghers (Finnie, 1990), or the Coastguard Station on the Knab which Finnie (1990) describes as “overscaled and sculptural” but intended to be viewed from a distance.
It is not just about scale, but the lack of attention to detail in the new school which gives the impression that it has been plucked off the shelf of a design-build firm who appear to specialise in providing buildings which could be erected literally anywhere – in other words paying no respect to a site and its setting.
The yellow render has no reference point in a town which is dominated by the grey stone and render which characterises the nearby Lodberries and the rest of the conservation area; the horizontal fenestration is inappropriate when all around windows form vertical openings in buildings; the shoe horning of the oversized new building into the site takes no account of its setting in relation to existing buildings, local residences and the important historic buildings.
Unfortunately the plans provided to the SIC as part of the planning application present no decent images of the true impact on the town and surroundings – photomontages of the new school seem to be superimposed on photographs taken at night, some show elevations as viewed from the foot of the hill, and none show the site as it will be seen from the sea.
Most importantly the proposal shows no respect for the three listed buildings, although it is clear that it will have an adverse impact on the original school and the two hostels.
The committee report written for the SIC states that the building will be visible against the skyline; and that the height and scale will have an adverse impact on the listed buildings, and on their setting and on the townscape of Lerwick (paragraph 7.9). On that basis alone I would suggest that the proposal should be refused planning permission.
But in a somewhat puzzling fashion, the report continues to state that a “good balance between the aesthetic and functional aspects of the design has been achieved” (paragraph 7.10). No explanation of these terms is given and it is impossible to understand how this conclusion can be reached, especially where important historic buildings are concerned.
It is understood that Historic Scotland has at last been able to examine the proposal and it would be remarkable if they did not show some concerns. Whilst there will be the welcome demolition of some ugly buildings on the site, especially the huts in front of the original old school, this should be seen as an opportunity to enhance the setting of the listed buildings and provide something worthy of the location. For a site and building of such importance a good design can be negotiated with a chosen architect.
An important question which has to be asked during the consideration of an application for planning permission is whether or not the proposal conflicts with the adopted planning policy of the council.
The Shetland Local Plan (2004) contains a section on how best to conserve Shetland’s stock of historic buildings, and it states that in considering applications under the Planning (Scotland) Acts, the planning authority will presume against any development that will cause harm to the character or setting of a listed building.
Policy LP BE6 states that: “alterations or extensions to, and new developments within the curtilage of listed buildings must respect the original structure in terms of design, scale, materials and, where appropriate, setting. All developments that affect listed buildings or their settings must be of a high quality…”
I would strongly argue that the proposal for the new school conflicts with this policy. With the use of materials and its featureless elevations surrounded by car parks, it does nothing to enhance the setting of the listed buildings. An opportunity to remedy mistakes of the past is lost.
It appears that the new school has been permitted without proper consideration, without the participation of local people, the staff and pupils of the school, and without proper consultation with Historic Scotland – a requirement under the relevant legislation due to its impact on listed buildings.
There appears to have been an almost indecent haste to permit the planning application, which lacks good information, along with some contradictory suggestions in the report to committee.
All this has to be viewed against the statutory development plan and the consideration of alternative sites as well as a review of secondary education in Shetland.
Again the SIC needs to refer to its own development plan. Has the land been designated in the local plan for a school? In fact the plan states that the preferred alternative site for a new school is on land adjacent to the Clickhimin Sports Centre at Staney Hill. Crucially, the plan goes on to say; “no matter which site is developed a high standard of design and materials will be required” (paragraph 14.1 of the Shetland Local Plan: Lerwick Community Statement, 2004).
Policy 20 states that a review of the proposed new site will be needed before any decision is made and that the review should include an investigation into what the existing buildings will be used for, especially the three listed buildings. It would appear that by granting planning permission for a new school on the Knab with such haste, the council has had no regard for its own local plan which makes clear statements to the contrary.
With regard to the current application, there remain many questions. No pre-application discussions between the developer and the planners were reported (commonplace today for such a major development); there is no mention in the committee report of the proper response from Historic Scotland, the body which statutorily oversees alterations to listed buildings and their settings; few people appear to have been consulted resulting in petitions to the SIC now at this late stage after permission has been granted (The Shetland Times, 19th August 2009); mitigation measures for construction noise have not been fully worked out in advance of permission being granted.
Several conditions which have been proposed are simply unenforceable – who, for example, will count the 47 heavy lorry movements to and from the site during construction, and how was this figure arrived at? A major concern of residents is impact from traffic after the new school is opened.
These objections have not been addressed and a proper traffic management scheme for the Knab to the satisfaction of local residents has not been submitted. The committee report states that the traffic impact will be less than for other uses on the site – it is simply not possible to say this since no other use is proposed.
Local people are questioning the procedures that have (or have not) been followed. The council is in a privileged situation in commissioning a new school – it acts as developer, funder, planning authority, and of course it is also the education authority. As a result this provides opportunities to co-ordinate a decision about a new school.
The forthcoming Laidler report is irrelevant. What is needed is a new approach. The council needs to determine the educational requirements for secondary schooling in Shetland, following which it needs to conduct (or re-visit) a study of the two sites at the Knab and Clickimin (in accordance with the local plan) and carry out full and proper consultation with the school, its pupils and local people.
Whichever site is selected, the next step will be to commission an architect to design something which is worthy of the chosen site and which will continue the long tradition of good quality education in Shetland.
References Finnie, M. (1990) Shetland An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Mainstream Publications Scotland Limited, RIAS, Edinburgh.
Manson, T. (1991) (originally published 1923) Lerwick During the last Half Century, Lerwick
Shetland Islands Council (2004) ‘Shetland Local Plan’, SIC, Lerwick