The brakes have been put on a major housing development for Tingwall following objections that valuable agricultural land could be lost.
Councillors voted by four votes to three to reject Hjaltland Housing Association’s application to build 38 new houses in an area near the Herrislea House Hotel.
The refusal came after an impassioned plea by Tingwall resident Joyce Pole, who said arable land best suited to farming or crofting was being “cherry-picked” by developers for new houses.
She said “constant asset-stripping” had left Shetland crofts devalued and urged members of the planning committee to turn down Hjaltland’s plans.
It will come as a blow for the housing association which had hoped the project would help to address Shetland’s housing shortage. It is now considering lodging an appeal if the decision is backed by the Full Council.
During the SIC’s planning meeting on Wednesday, councillors said allowing the application would highlight inconsistencies in their decision making, because previous applications for houses on arable land have been turned down.
Mrs Pole said councillors risked undermining the very bedrock of the farming industry’s existence if the proposal went ahead.
At the hearing in the Town Hall she told the committee: “This malfunction in our planning system is poorly understood and is being ignored or brushed under the carpet.
“The huge pressure put on the planning department to help bring down the housing list is one cause, and land speculation is another.
“The constant repetition of ‘there is no good land in Shetland’ must stop and be replaced by another mantra: ‘We protect arable land and we sustain our communities’.”
She said agriculture had suffered from “competition, lack of investment and reams of red tape”, but had brought £6 million to the isles in 2007.
She also criticised councillors for failing to carry out consultation in the area ahead of the application.
In response architect Iain Malcolmson, from Redman and Sutherland, said Hjaltland had produced figures which demonstrated a “substantial demand” for housing in the Tingwall valley.
He said the site was “well-suited” to the development, adding it had been classed as a zone three area, which meant it was suitable for housing.
“We believe it is much better to have a cluster of developments close together than to have sprawling developments across a wide area which could impact on the landscape,” he said.
He said the development would be connected to the district heating scheme, adding the existing drainage system would be upgraded in the future to cope with the influx of newcomers to the area.
On agriculture, he said Hjaltland would even be willing to remove the top-soil from the 2.35 hectares allocated for the development before construction work begins.
That, he said, could be used to provide allotments, or placed in fallow land until a suitable location for agricultural development is found.
Councillor Caroline Miller wanted to defer a decision on the proposal for two cycles to allow further consultation to be carried out with residents in the area.
“I’ve looked at this application and the design is excellent,” she said. “It ticks every single box, except it’s on good agricultural land.
“Further public consultation should be undertaken. Alternative sites have not been examined for this kind of development, and I have concerns for the extra traffic and the lack of amenities for the additional population.”
However she was cautioned by head of planning Iain McDiarmid, who said consultation had already been carried out as part of the planning process.
Planning chairman Frank Robertson said 11 letters of objection had been received, including one from the community council for Tingwall.
Councillor Gary Robinson supported the scheme, and moved it be approved – although he failed to find a seconder in the chamber.
He said the developer had “taken into consideration everything that could be thought of”. “Even on the question of arable land the developer has shown a willingness to provide some mitigation,” he said.
“Zone three says it should reflect the settlement pattern in the surrounding area. In reality, there is a housing estate to the south, east and west of the proposed development. It does reflect the pattern, and it is well laid out.”
Speaking after the meeting, Hjaltland’s Brian Leask said he was “clearly disappointed” but Hjaltland managers would be meeting to consider putting together an appeal.
“We have always been aware this is good quality ground. We have to work with the policies in front of us. This is an area zoned for housing, and it was felt we had given enough mitigating facts to say it should go ahead.
“I understand councillors were worried about inconsistencies, but each application has to be looked at on its own merits, and just because one application can be refused doesn’t mean another application should be.
“We’ve had discussions in the office. There is a route open to us to appeal if we so decide. We will be asking the management committee whether they want to appeal.”