A speedy resolution is being sought to the planning wrangle over the proposed new housing development in Scalloway which is threatening the future of building firm JHB, although the chairman of the SIC’s planning board said no special case can be made for the company.
Councillors heard calls for a special pre-determination hearing to be held in order to consider last month’s contentious application for 100 new homes at Utnabrake when they met at the Town Hall on Wednesday.
That would allow JHB to state its case, and push the matter forward to next month’s Full Council, rather than May which could be too late for the beleaguered construction firm.
The company has effectively been living on borrowed time since plans for the housing scheme were put on hold at last month’s planning meeting. Councillors became jittery over fears the development would use up valuable agricultural land. They decided to wait for the outcome of an appeal on another development at Veensgarth in Tingwall, which was rejected last year because it too was planned on good ground. Last week it emerged JHB was being pursued by the taxman for £228,634 in unpaid tax and national insurance.
Councillor Betty Fullerton called for a rethink on the planning board’s move to defer a decision on the scheme for two cycles, to help speed up the issue.
She said meetings had been held where JHB management had discussed the situation with head of planning Iain McDiarmid and infrastructure chief Gordon Greenhill.
“There seems to be a will to move ahead on this and it’s possible these things could move on in good time,” said Mrs Fullerton.
“The planning board can hold a pre-determination hearing and the Full Council would have a final hearing. This is only when an application is for a major development which is seen to be different from the development plan.
“If everything came together, if the outcome for the appeal [at Veensgarth] was known, we could get it to a stage where we could have a special planning meeting so that it could be scheduled for a council meeting on 24th March.”
However planning chairman Frank Robertson refused to make any commitment on the issue until the outcome of the Veensgarth appeal – currently in the hands of Scottish ministers – was known. Speaking after the meeting he said he would have to consult with the head of the council’s legal and administration service, Jan Riise, as well as Mr McDiarmid.
“Why should we have a special planning meeting for one company, and for one application?” he asked. “Does that mean somebody else coming in with another application could ask for a special planning meeting?”
Since the new houses were refused a complaint of maladministration has been raised with the council over the way the planning service handled the application, which was lodged in partnership with Hjaltland Housing Association as far back as July. Any agreement can’t come soon enough for the firm. A petition from Revenue and Customs was posted on the wall at Lerwick Sheriff Court last week requiring a response within eight days to prevent the company from being forced out of business because of its tax issues.
No response had been filed at the court when checked by The Shetland Times this week, although managing director John Halcrow said the taxman had been kept informed of a possible agreement.
Mr Halcrow had already warned the deferral had forced a major restructuring programme upon the company, which meant paying off 21 members of staff. Despite the concerns he was upbeat about the situation facing his company, particularly following his meetings with officials this week – although the company’s survival does depend now on a speedy decision from Scottish ministers about the Veensgarth appeal, something no-one at the council has any control over.
“All I would say is that anything which speeds up the process of getting a determination would be welcomed by JHB,” he said.
“We have always felt there is no reason why this project could not have come with a recommendation for approval from the planning department.
“We don’t think the issues that they consider need to be resolved are particularly arduous. I’m confident the situation can be sorted out.”
Meanwhile, councillor Jonathan Wills tried to ease concerns over houses being built on arable land.
He told fellow members he had been told of research showing housing developments built on good ground led to an abundance of food production if the gardens were made big enough.