By JOHN ROBERTSON
A GROUP of local businessmen have had their plan to renovate St Olaf’s Hall in Lerwick thrown out by councillors, despite planners recommending approval.
West Fish (Shetland) Ltd wanted to turn the dilapidated former church and community centre at the top of Church Road into up-market offices and replace an ugly concrete extension with eight flats in two four-storey blocks.
Although the proposed design by architect Alan McKay has come in for praise there has been solid opposition from people living in the area, mainly because neighbouring houses would lose daylight and suffer worse parking problems. One hundred people signed a petition against the development and some residents enlisted a lawyer to put their case to councillors. In May, Lerwick Community Council came out unanimously against, branding it overdevelopment.
When the hefty 238-page planning application came before a hearing of the SIC planning board on Wednesday, the planning department confounded expectation by backing the proposals. Even the council’s roads department had changed its mind about the lack of parking and did not lodge an objection. The local plan indicated 41 spaces were needed but a number of factors made fewer spaces acceptable, including a car park nearby. The roads service felt eight spaces were enough but the developers proposed only five, which planners advised was an acceptable compromise.
Planning development manager John Holden said the lack of parking might actually help “change people’s attitudes” by persuading them not to take a car or to park somewhere else and walk to their work.
West Fish had agreed to encourage its tenants to walk or cycle and it intended including cycle racks and showers for them to use. The company was also willing to set up a cycle pool scheme for people in the offices and the flats, including buying a number of bikes for them.
Mr Holden said it was regrettable that the four-storey flats would overshadow houses in Queen’s Place more than the existing building does already but the effect on daylight getting through would not be significantly worse. He said the development would have a positive effect on the street scene overall.
Councillor for the area Caroline Miller said she had been “exceptionally surprised” to see the planners recommend approval. She tore into them for not adhering to basic policies designed to protect the rights of neighbours and to ensure enough car parking spaces.
Mrs Miller had consulted the Shetland Local Plan which stated that householders’ daylight had to be protected and if it any development would affect it then planning permission had to be refused. “I don’t see any room for disagreement there,” she said. “It is simply black and white!”
Regarding the lack of parking, she said people were still entitled to have a car in a small town and they could not be expected to walk to and from a supermarket with their shopping. She revealed how councillors on a tour of housing sites in preparation for Wednesday’s meeting had been unable to get off their bus to look at St Olaf’s Hall because there was nowhere to park.
She said West Fish’s plan was overdevelopment of the site and if it really wanted to save St Olaf’s Hall it could demolish the extension and put parking spaces there instead of the proposed flats.
Earlier solicitor Linda Knarston of Anderson & Goodlad had accused planners of writing a biased report which simply repeated what the applicants had said in their submission and showed “a cavalier disregard” for the objectors and their love of the area.
Ms Knarston said the scale and size of the proposal was too dominating and “akin to attempting to squeeze a quart into a pint pot”. It would have a severe detrimental effect on neighbouring houses, particularly on their natural light. She accused West Fish of “an attempt to drive a coach and horses through the local plan” and said even the provision of five parking spaces was exaggerated because one was reserved for disabled people and another was for a loading bay required during the day.
Replying on West Fish’s behalf, Mr McKay said the overshadowing would be limited to mornings in spring and autumn. He confirmed that the roads service had initially recommended refusal because at least eight parking spaces were needed. However, all the spaces provided would be available to the flat residents at night, he said.
For Mr McKay the telling issue was what to do with a currently under-used building which is falling into disrepair. The problem of parking would be faced all over Lerwick, he said, and it was an issue the council had to face up to unless buildings like St Olaf’s Hall were simply to be taken down and used as car parks. The other councillors who spoke backed Mrs Miller.
Cecil Smith said the streets up to five minutes from St Olaf’s Hall were already full of parked cars and to allow the development was “only adding fuel to the fire”.
Bill Manson liked the building design but said four-storeys of flats was “a bit hefty”.
Only five of the seven members present were able to discuss the matter because chairman Frank Robertson declared an interest due to a family connection with an objector and during the debate Iris Hawkins followed suit after it became known that the Hjaltland Housing Association, on which she sits, was involved in talks about the flats.
In the end no vote was required because nobody spoke in favour of the plan.
Angus Grains of West Fish said afterwards it may appeal the refusal or return with a different proposal. He, along with fellow directors John Goodlad and Alistair Goodlad, bought St Olaf’s Hall from the Church of Scotland late last year.