Councillors to be given more detail on progress of Mareel construction

Councillors are to be kept better informed about progress on the construction of cinema and music venue Mareel amid ongoing fears that the project may suffer further delays.

The SIC has contributed £6 million towards the £12.2 million cost of the venue. Development committee members have been getting regular updates on the project, but some complained during the private portion of this week’s Full Council meeting that those updates have been “anodyne” and lacked detail.

Head of economic development Neil Grant confirmed that councillors would now get a private briefing at every development meeting after councillor Jonathan Wills raised a range of queries and concerns about hiccups in the construction phase. Members are unhappy that they are unable to separate fact from fiction when hearing persistent suggestions of troubles at the building site.

Mr Grant said the more detailed updates would have to take place behind closed doors due to “contractual implications” if commercially sensitive information was placed in the public domain.

“Clearly the council has concerns regarding the timescales and the impact that clearly has, both on the business plan and on the Mareel project,” he told The Shetland Times. “But the big thing [for councillors] was wanting to have as much information as they possibly could have. Without that, they’re hearing things that might be fact and might be fiction.”

Dr Wills said he was “pleasantly surprised” by that outcome, adding he wanted to stress he was a supporter of many of Shetland Arts’ other activities and was merely worried that Mareel would “cripple” the cultural body. “My concern is solely that this project’s escalating costs may damage this organisation’s excellent work in other areas of the community, which I fully support,” he said.

Shetland Arts insists the project remains on budget and the organisation’s director Gwilym Gibbons this week said any teething troubles were nothing out of the ordinary for a building of this nature.

It had originally been hoped that Mareel would be completed this spring, before Shetland Arts announced in January that the opening would be pushed back to at least August or September. The blame for that was laid primarily on a prolonged period of bad weather in November and December.

Asked why that had translated into a delay of several months, Mr Gibbons responded: “It’s not just one block of bad weather. There’s a whole range of other things that have caused delays to the programme, but everyone is trying to progress the job as quickly as possible.”

Addressing a number concerns raised by Dr Wills and others, Mr Gibbons said Shetland Arts had not yet hired any staff to run the building and would not do so until an opening date has been fixed. That will only happen when Mareel is fully wind and watertight.

The Lerwick South councillor has also heard concerns about the structure of the building’s entrance, issues related to the way roof sheets were being welded to wall cladding and rumoured difficulties with a large area of flooring.

Mr Gibbons said he could not discuss building specifics publicly for reasons of commercial confidentiality, but he did categorically deny that differences between the client, contractor and architect had resulted in lawyers’ letters being exchanged.

“Everybody’s talking to each other on a problem-solving basis, and that’s how buildings are built,” he said. “My belief is that what we have are the normal issues you have with any complex construction project, and there are discussions about how things can be done differently en route. Are there fundamental difficulties with the project and the building’s structure? My view is no.”

Some eyebrows had been raised at Mr Gibbons’ public statement last week that he did not need to know exactly what had gone wrong on the building site. He clarified that point, saying he was “fully aware” of what is happening on site and is involved in “four or five meetings a week” related to Mareel’s construction.

“We’re doing what we have to do as a client,” he said. “I think there’s some frustration because we can’t say ‘it’s going to open on X date’. Everyone shares that frustration, and we have to just bear with that. In time it will open, and I’d like to think a lot of this period of time will be forgotten, people will get in there and enjoy it, as they did the museum and the leisure centres.”

The latest setback to afflict the North Ness building came when roofing contractors, Glasgow firm TM Devon, called in the administrators last Wednesday. Contractors DITT said the company had completed the bulk of work it was contracted to carry out, but TM Devon workers walked off site last week.

It is understood administrators KPMG may instruct the firm to complete its work on Mareel so it can be paid, helping TM Devon to settle with some of its creditors. But it is thought the roofing issues could lead to further delays to Mareel, with some now sceptical whether the venue will open its doors before 2012.

Mareel will contain a 700-capacity, 330-seat music auditorium, a 159-seat cinema, a smaller second screen and music recording and rehearsal spaces.

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