By NEIL RIDDELL
Two of Lerwick town centre’s landmark buildings are set to be pulled down and a block of flats built in their stead after the SIC’s planning board approved an altered design which will include two commercial properties on the ground floor of the new structure.
Hjaltland Housing Association’s design for 15 one-bedroom flats was unanimously given the go-ahead by the board at a meeting this week, with the stipulation that the range of uses for the commercial units be widened to include the possibility of running a crèche or similar childcare facility in Harbour Street, as well as the potential for other retail or financial business uses.
HHA’s senior technical officer Paul Leask said the organisation was “delighted” to be granted planning permission for the project, though it is clearly frustrated at being forced to include the commercial units which cannot be paid for through the housing association’s central government grant. HHA withdrew its original application 12 months ago due to concerns about the design and use of the site.
Once Historic Scotland has been notified of the decision it has 28 days in which to decide whether to call the proposal in. The organisation has raised its concern that sufficient attempts had not been made to find a buyer willing to refurbish the existing buildings rather than demolish them and start again, but council planners rejected that argument in their recommendations.
The health and safety executive is also being notified due to the area’s proximity to the fuel tanks at North Ness, but as per an agreement bartered by Shetland Arts when it was seeking planning permission for Mareel, it is anticipated that modifications from site owner GB Oils – including the installation of an overflow pipe – will be sufficient to pacify the authorities.
Mr Leask said the project would be a “challenging” one and he expects it will take a minimum of three, possibly as long as five, years before prospective tenants will be able to move in. The demolition phase alone will take “months rather than weeks”, while the narrow stretch of Fort Road between the corner of Mooney’s Wake and the SIC’s housing department will also have to be widened by around two feet to satisfy planning conditions.
But HHA is less than impressed at being forced to include the commercial units in order for the development to go ahead, not least because as a housing association, it is not permitted to use its block grant from the government to build anything other than houses. That means it will have to take out a commercial loan to pay for the units, with no guarantee that it will be able to find anyone who wants to run a business in that area.
“Fundamentally, we’re a housing association and because we don’t actually get funding to provide commercial units, the only way we can do it is by borrowing the money and being sure we can pay back that loan,” said Mr Leask.
“Our concern is there isn’t the market to let out these properties for them to pay for themselves. I can see why they’re saying that’s not a planning concern, but … if a pub cannot work there, there’s not much chance of anything else happening there.”
Lerwick Community Council submitted a complaint backing up HHA’s concerns, stating its members were “appalled” that the planning department was forcing the inclusion of a commercial element to the project when there is a 900-long waiting list for housing in the town.
Community councilors felt the planners were making “unrealistic demands” and the letter stated: “The desperate need for housing is well known and much reported but we have yet to hear of a need for commercial premises.”
Of HHA’s own 435-strong list of applicants for houses in the town, more than half are looking for single bedroom accommodation of the type proposed in this development, but SIC services manager John Holden countered at a recent community council meeting that the site was within the town centre, already has food takeaways and a hairdresser nearby and should have a “multi-functional role” to “add some vibrancy” to the area.
Speaking at the meeting in Islesburgh Community Centre on Wednesday morning, planning board chairman Frank Robertson said the buildings – which previously housed the North Star nightclub and Mooney’s Wake pub – were “fairly iconic” but in a “dilapidated state” and the only financially viable option was to pull them down. He added that the redesign incorporating the business units, following concern at solely residential properties being erected in a commercial district, was “very imaginative” and that the housing association had done all it could to find a buyer for the existing properties.
Members agreed to councillor Bill Manson’s suggestion of widening the possible number of uses for the commercial units so that anyone wishing to start up a crèche would be able to do so.
He said that, having had personal experience of trying to run a shop in an area just on the fringes of Lerwick’s main retailing district, it was “a struggle” and that if the two units were lying empty they would be “no use to anybody”. Councillor Cecil Smith said he found it difficult to understand why the development had to be of mixed use rather than just residential, but did not propose an amendment.