Councillors fear accommodating construction workers could ‘put tourism on back burner’

The SIC is to look into ways of addressing a potentially chronic shortage of accommodation as the isles’ economy faces coping with hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of major building projects which could go ahead between now and 2015.

A report before yesterday’s dev­elop­ment committee mentioned a host of projects which would require a colossal number of construction workers. They include Total’s new gas plant at Sullom Voe, the Mid Yell Junior High School, Mareel, Viking Energy’s windfarm, new Whalsay ferry terminals, phase three of house-building at Quoys and hundreds of council houses.

Councillors voiced concern at the prospect of many of Shetland’s estimated 2,573 bed spaces (in hotels, B&Bs, guest houses, hostels and self-catering) being booked up for construction workers during busy tourist seasons for much of the next six years – particularly with the Hamefarin’ event next year and the hosting of the Tall Ships in 2011.

The report, written by research officer Tommy Coutts, showed the projects would provide employment for between 300 and 600 workers every year between now and 2014, before construction was predicted to drop off.

It is projected that the busiest years will be 2011 – when 500 will be employed at Sullom Voe alone – and 2013. In both years, more than a quarter of available accommodation will be swallowed up by construction workers. Members have now com­missioned a further study into how the council can help the community to cope with the influx.

Shetland North member Alastair Cooper suggested that the report “drastically underestimates” the potential scope for overheating the local economy. He pointed out that councillors had recently decided to spend £100 million over five years on capital projects, with an additional £20 million on new housing.

Mr Cooper said council spending alone could account for £180 million or more and there was also normal commercial activity like house building and other private contracts to consider. “If we’re going to deliver all those things, the problem is a lot, lot worse than what we’ve got here,” he said.

Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills suggested making it a planning condition that developers have to provide at least some of the required accommodation for workers. Otherwise, he suggested, Shetland could face “putting tourism on the back burner for a number of years”.

The problem, according to West Mainland councillor Frank Robert­son, would be getting accurate figures from the various developers on how many staff they will need.

He pointed out that when the oil terminal at Sullom Voe was being built in the 1970s, a workers’ camp was erected at Firth to cope with 1,500 people. But it soon became apparent that the numbers would be hugely in excess of that and a further 1,800 had to be accommodated in a separate camp at Toft.

“It is very difficult getting the information out of the contractors,” Mr Robertson said, adding it would be a case of considering each on a contract by contract basis at the planning stage, gathering information on how many workers would be required and for how long.


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