The planning department seems to be in the firing line once again, this time for the perceived failure to make a decision within a given time limit for the proposed large housing estate north of Scalloway, or south of Asta. According to the interviews in the media the planning discussion has been ongoing for nearly four years. Now that tells me how difficult it is to get round the regulations to keep everyone happy. The problem is there are still so many obstacles that run counter to the Local Plan and hence the recommendation for refusal.
Presumably the developer of the housing estate and business-park knew so prior to submitting its final plan for approval. This begs the question, was it desperation to submit the plan in the hope of forcing the planning department into a decision, and so precipitating the crisis that has unfolded? This puts an unjustifiable pressure on our elected officials and has forced it to go to the Full Council. Adding emotional blackmail about job losses into the equation means a dispassionate decision may not be made based on the well rounded planning officials’ report. The planning sub-committee must be commended for the considered opinion to delay a decision for two rounds to get more information about one of the sticking points; that of the change of use from active crofts into a housing estate and business park. It was said that this would give the developer some time to come up with a better housing plan as it was nowhere near as good as the Hjaltland scheme proposed for the croft land at Herrislea, which was rejected on agricultural grounds (pardon the pun) and is now subject to appeal.
The developer was adamant that the smaller first phase for full planning permission (for 21 houses) could not be seen in isolation, and that without the outline permission for the larger scheme including the private houses and the business-park being granted, the 21 houses would not be financially viable on its own merit.
The developer stated that it could be on site within a very short period of time. Would that really be the case? Has the funding for the 21 houses been put in place and if so why would there be no profit? If funding is still required how long in these straitened times would it take for Hjaltland to procure the finance? In view of the opposition to the loss of valuable agricultural land how long would the process of decrofting the active crofts take? This process may not be straightforward, even if the seller of some of the land is a crofting commissioner and knows the ropes; it may take months as due process has to be followed and if the land court is involved it may take even longer.
The chairman of the planning sub-committee pointed out some important issues. The huge increase in traffic of 800 to 1,000 car journeys was not addressed by the road structure in the plan. I fear that this would mean the Scalloway to Veensgarth road will become a rat run for traffic going north and west and ruin one of the most beautiful loch side areas in Shetland. The chairman also observed that the business park was speculative and as such may fail.
In three years the developers should have come up with some concrete evidence or feasibility study to show that there was gen-uine interest by businesses to use the business park but failed to do so by way of a supporting statement.
Going back to the change in use from crofts to a housing estate, I’m sure that I’m not the only one to liken the people with power in the crofting and farming community who are selling off good crofts, to wily coyotes in charge of the chicken house, picking off the fattest and best, one and two at a time. I don’t know when the sale of the Utnabrake croft land took place or how the purchase was funded, but if it is the case that immediately after the sale, the land is offered to developers for housing it smacks of carpet bagging and although legally acceptable it is wrong. Wrong because at a time when the Scottish government is increasing pressure on farmers to release farm land to form new crofts, funding more agricultural college places and actively encouraging young people into crofting, here in Shetland we are busy breaking up or asset stripping valuable crofts or taking whole crofts out of existence. If the owners are unable to make a go of crofting then there should be some way of leasing the land for new tenants.
Arable and good grazing are finite resources and need to be protected and used, they are assets of a sustainable industry. The importance of local food production is in sharp focus and because of the weak pound, which results in the increasing cost of food imports, makes our home markets vital to feed the nation and every bit helps including our crofts. We need better support for our crofting industry. We need to stop treating good, hard grafting farmers and crofters as insignificant second class citizens. We need to get our act together to maintain our food producing capabilities. We need a formal protection for our peripheral area and subsistence crofts.
These are sustainable aspirations that the Local Plan is in place to uphold. Maintenance of scenery, flora and a fauna habitat protection, not just for its own sake but also for our tourism industry is the added bonus.
Gary Robinson hit the nail on the head when he stated that he supports smaller scale housing de-velopments in the remote rural areas. I think this makes best use of funding available and is much better than huge grandiose schemes concentrated in central areas that destroys our best agricultural land (even if they have business parks and health centres tagged on as some kind of damage mitigating afterthought).
Previously designated areas must be used for housing in a sustainable way. I hope a good honest decision is made on behalf of Shetland as a whole and that our council is not swayed by threats or legal challenge.