17th August 2018
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Building firm blames planners for decision to lay off workers

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One of Shetland’s biggest building firms is blaming council planners for jeopardising its future and forcing it to make 21 workers redundant.

JHB has lodged an official com­plaint of maladministration with Shetland Islands Council in protest at planners’ handling of its £30 million application to build 100 houses, a health centre and business park between Upper Scalloway and Utnabrake in association with Hjaltland Housing Association. The first phase is for 21 houses and also includes a network of roads and a roundabout.

After long delays the application was eventually deferred last month for several more months because of a variety of concerns including how it relates to the rest of Scalloway, the loss of agricultural land and about the design layout. Planning officials had recommended it be refused because it was a departure from the Shetland Structure Plan.

It is a huge scheme for any local company to take on. Director John Halcrow said this week JHB had invested “a tremendous amount” in design and preparation and had kept on a larger-than-required workforce in readiness to start preparations immediately, with the guarantee of constant work for five or six years to come.

Delays and then the unexpected reaction of the planning service and the planning board meant they could hold on no longer and Mr Halcrow said JHB was now going through “very sharp downsizing and restructuring” with two-thirds of its workforce being made redun­dant with a week’s notice. Those losing their jobs include joiners, administration workers, apprentices and stores employees, both local and foreign.

The company still has a few houses around Shetland that is current­ly working on. Mr Halcrow said: “We likely should have made cuts long before now but we always thought [the scheme] was just around the corner.”

He said the company had expect­ed to be on site at least a year ago following its years of discussions with the planning department to overcome the problems.

“All the core principles were established at the outset otherwise you would never have done it. There was no way you were going to commit to that [scale of development] on the off-chance!”

He said the unexpected failure to progress the Scalloway scheme had caused “tremendous” damage. “The manner in which this appli­cation has been handled has been catastrophic for this company. There is no other way to describe it.”

Mr Halcrow is angry that the planners appeared to turn against the proposal late last year despite having been involved in developing the plan for four years and effectively having given the green light to the Scalloway Community Council for the land to become zone 1, allowing it to be built on.

He said planning had been consulted closely in redesigning the concept, including layout and roads, and even in the fine detail, such as where rubbish should be stored for the essy-kert.

The application was submitted back in July following revisions. A promise to bring the report forward by the four-month limit in Novem­ber, or to hold a special meeting, was broken, Mr Halcrow said.

Then there is the mystery of why the planning service waited until December to advertise that the application involved a departure from the structure plan and had to go out to consultation to statutory bodies. Mr Halcrow said the advert should have gone out in mid-August but it appears the planners forgot.

His complaint against the SIC raises the spectre of another pos­sible multi-million pound compen­sation action being pursued against the local authority, as happened recently when Judane threatened a £2.3 million claim due to the planning department’s maladminis­tration in giving wrong advice about change of use for its knitwear factory.

On Tuesday the council’s head of legal services Jan Riise said JHB’s complaint was being dealt with according to the official pro­cedures. Under those terms, a full reply from service director Gordon Greenhill has to be sent to JHB within 15 working days.

The planning application is likely to be raised again at the Full Council meeting on 17th February where it might even be supported by enough councillors to overturn the planning board’s decision to defer it. The board wanted to await the outcome of an appeal of the refusal of Hjaltland Housing Association’s application to build 38 houses on agricultural land at Veensgarth.

MSP Tavish Scott has been involved in the JHB dispute since October, along with council chief executive David Clark and several councillors.

This week Mr Scott called on the chief executive (currently the acting chief Hazel Sutherland) to deal with JHB’s complaint “properly but very quickly”, particularly the failure to determine the planning application within the statutory period required.

He said: “There doesn’t seem to me much point in passing laws in Edinburgh if they are then ignored across the country.”

Mr Scott said the case highlighted how the council dominates the local economy and that its decision had meant jobs had been lost.

“I think the council need to be very aware that this is the first time we have seen major job losses in a local building firm and recognise the impact that the council has on our economy.”

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