By NEIL RIDDELL
LERWICK could be in line for a huge programme of house building on the Staney Hill in an effort to address the town’s chronic shortage of homes in the coming years.
The council is in the early stages of researching the project, which could see as many as 200 new homes – a mixture of council houses, Hjaltland Housing properties and private sector developments – materialising as attempts are made to reduce the 900-long housing waiting list.
The Shetland Times has learned that Slap, the council’s property company, has reached an advanced stage of negotiations with the owners of a large parcel of land running west from the back of Clickimin Centre on either side of the road up the Staney Hill, reaching almost as far as Hoofields on the other side of the hill.
It is understood that a deal with the owner, the inheritor of the Nicolson Estate who is believed to be a woman now living in England, could be finalised before the turn of the year.
SIC housing chief Chris Medley is preparing a report to go before the council’s services committee in the coming months giving an indication of how much the different options for building on the land may cost, though he stressed the project was still in its early stages and warned people not to expect that houses would suddenly start springing up on the hill as soon as Slap has acquired the land.
A move to build a substantial quantity of housing on the land would require significant changes to the local plan for Lerwick. The area of land closest to Hoofields is already marked down for housing use under planning regulations, but a substantial chunk of Slap’s proposed acquisition is set aside for use in education after an earlier proposal to build the new Anderson High School there.
After going back to the drawing board on the AHS for a fourth time, councillors still appear minded to stick with the existing Knab site but have not ruled out re-examining other sites should that prove too costly. There have also been suggestions that a third primary school, or a replacement for Bell’s Brae, could be installed on the side of the hill next to Clickimin.
Some parts of the land about to be acquired will be easier to build on than others, but the ongoing development of more than 100 homes at Quoys – which involved digging into the side of the hill – demonstrated that, where a strong will exists, the landscape should not present too great an obstacle.
“It opens up opportunities for the council to engage with other agencies and to look at its own resources to develop new build houses in the area, which will alleviate the chronic problem that we face,” said Mr Medley.
“The likelihood is that it will be a mixture of council houses, Hjaltland houses, owner-occupiers and possibly private sector landlords as well. What we’d be seeking to do is a mixed tenure approach so that you don’t have great big estates of one particular tenure.
“[Another] issue is that it may be necessary to sell off building plots to fund, in part, other developments. The other aspect is that we would be working to make as much of this affordable or low-cost housing so that it helps the council to meet its statutory obligations.”
Mr Medley estimated that, although detailed calculations still have to be made, the site could be big enough for somewhere (Continued on page two) (Continued from page one) in the region of 200 properties. He said: “I don’t want people thinking we’re going to have houses up there next week, it will take a lot of planning to get to a stage where we can actually build the houses.”
Recent months have seen local authorities demonstrate a growing appetite for building significant volumes of council houses for the first time in many years. The availability of low-cost housing is seen as particularly pressing for Shetland because of its sizeable waiting list, with the 900 figure expected to continue rising in the coming months.
But Mr Medley signalled a note of caution that the SIC’s level of housing debt, the highest of its kind in Scotland at around £48m, will make it more difficult for council resources to make a significant impact in reducing waiting lists. The council’s housing stock fell from 2,014 to 1,956 in the past year, and some councillors have suggested the SIC should consider suspending the right to buy.
“I’m aware that some other councils have recently built council houses as well and are preparing large-scale volume house building, but generally speaking they’re the ones that have a low debt, but we’ve got the complication of a high housing debt,” said Mr Medley.
“It doesn’t make it impossible but it does make it more complicated. We’ll have to gear up for volume house building by Shetland standards, but we’d want it to be new and exciting and to try different things, [so] there’s a lot to think about.”
An ambitious proposal last year from Brian and Maurice Anderson, who own a portion of Staney Hill, to open up huge tracts of land for up to 3,500 houses garnered little in the way of response. The other major landowners of the hill are the council, LPA and various other private landowners, crofting tenants and grazing committees.
The Andersons’ idea was to drive a new main road along the back of Staney Hill to incorporate new areas of housing, industry and commerce, stretching from the motor garages at Blackhill in the north to Upper Sound in the south, roughly following the old Cunningham Way track.
- Meanwhile, Slap this week agreed to the purchase of the Gutter’s Hut at North Ness, a deal which is expected to be completed next week. SIC chief executive Morgan Goodlad said the council had no specific plans at present for the premises, which are owned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).