Future house-builders in Shetland may be forced to pay a levy to the council towards the cost of providing education, social care and community facilities. People seeking to build in more remote areas could be especially penalised.
The idea is not a late April Fool but one of the more radical changes proposed in the forthcoming revamp of the council’s main planning and land use policies for Shetland.
Imposing a charge on even the individual house-builder would formalise and greatly extend a practice previously applied only to some larger-scale developers in Shetland, notably Presto which had to pay for the roundabout near its supermarket (now Tesco) when it was built 15 years ago.
In England and Wales a system of community infrastructure levies has just been formalised, taking effect this month. It sets a charge based on the floor space of a proposed new building and according to land or property prices in the area. In some places down south it is adding as much as £11,000 to a house-builder’s costs. In one case, developing 25 houses has resulted in a levy of £197,000.
The practice favoured for Shetland by the council and groups it has consulted is a scale of “mandatory development contributions” specifying different amounts depending on the number and nature of the homes being built and the location.
A report currently out to public consultation states: “We think that if development puts pressure on infrastructure or services on areas outside the application site we should always seek some form of contribution to mitigate these impacts. This is especially true in areas where there is currently limited service and infrastructure provision.”
Consideration has been given to limiting the charge to the builders of groups of houses but the preferred view of the planners and the groups already consulted is to charge even for single houses. However, the levy might be waived if it threatened to kill-off the development.
The report continues: “We feel that even individual homes have impacts on infrastructure and services and these impacts are often made more significant if development takes place in more remote locations. We will ensure that the degree of contribution applicable to individual developments will be reasonable and that if the applicant can demonstrate that payment of the contribution would make the development financially unviable contributions may not be required.”
SIC development plans manager Hannah Nelson told The Shetland Times she could not give any indication at this stage of the possible levy amount to be proposed for a typical single house in Shetland. That would be the task of a focus group which would be formed to consider the matter and other issues thrown up during the overhaul of the development plan.
It is suggested that organisations like Hjaltland Housing Association, local charities and other groups should agree a list of sites which would be kept as community land banks for house-building which would be exempt from the new levy.
The proposed new building “tax” is one of many big planning issues up for debate just now which anyone interested in what is to be built and where in Shetland over the next 20 years perhaps ought to sit up and pay heed to. So far the debate seems to be taking place slightly below most people’s radar.
The reform ideas place major importance on the future sustainability of communities. They also tackle land use issues that have been mired in controversy in Shetland for years.
Ideas for change are set out in a document called the Main Issues Report, which Mrs Nelson said was “a rough diamond” to present to the public to try to stimulate debate.
The deadline for having your say on the issues is just over six weeks away so there is limited time in which to influence the future shape of Lerwick and every other community in the islands before decisions are made. However, there will be further chances next year and it will be late 2012 before the new local plans take effect. Even then they have to be reviewed again every five years.
A big question for Shetland’s future is where large new projects should be permitted and where they should not be allowed to go. Should all significant new development be concentrated in Lerwick and Bressay, once it gets its tunnel? The consensus of council departments and other organisations that have worked on the options is not to do that but to encourage big developments, such as schools and large housing schemes, in a Central Mainland zone, which includes the town and Scalloway, while secondary hubs are encouraged in Sandwick, Brae and Sullom Voe.
The belief is that this would be best for reducing the cost to the public purse of providing infrastructure and for gaining greater economies of scale. Many smaller communities in Shetland may fear they are being abandoned through such a shift in policy. But one of the messages coming through from government these days is the need to ensure that new developments are economically sustainable.
Another topical issue in the debate relates to the future zoning and availability of land for housing schemes, given that Shetland has a crying need for more homes, particularly council or housing association-funded. The preferred idea put forward in the Main Issues Report is to help speed up and smooth the path of potential developers by allocating land suitable for large housing developments. This should help get around the problem of fruitlessly looking to build in areas where there is no land available.
Part of that forward planning involves a big idea which has been previously reported in The Shetland Times – setting up a land register of all sites of more than half a hectare (1.25 acres) which are available for development over the next five to 20 years. Land owners are now being asked to come forward with their offerings which will be recorded and placed on public record to enable developers to see where they might be able to build the likes of houses, shops, industry or roads. The appeal may be made every year.
This idea appears to fit in well with the Scottish government’s demand that local authorities establish a land bank for housing, looking five years ahead, and also to reserve land for businesses to develop in. The government wants to use planning laws to help stimulate economic growth.
Alternatively, the council and the groups it has consulted suggest scrapping the idea of allocating land for housing and other big developments and to continue instead with the existing land zoning policy. However, it is felt that would result in “piecemeal and sporadic housing” with missed opportunities to streamline infrastructure costs.
Another option is simply to scrap the current endlessly controversial zoning policies and assess the suitability of each site for building on a case by case basis.
Protecting crofting and farming land is a red hot issue in Shetland and at the moment the council is likely to continue to do so, preferring only to grant exemptions for single houses where a need has been proven and when the house could not go on poorer land nearby. But potentially the protections could be scrapped or modified so that a new distinction is made between arable and grazing land with a view to saving only the best land. A further idea is to require each planning application for a new build to be assessed for the quality of agricultural land. But that would mean an extra staff member being employed to do the assessments.
The issue is topical after the surprise in Shetland earlier this month when the Scottish ministers’ reporter ruled that the problem with a Hjaltland housing scheme proposed for a green field in Tingwall was not the loss of agricultural land but its distance from basic services whereas building it a mile away, next to the local school, would be deemed acceptable.
In an attempt to help address that issue it is intended to get the council’s focus group to assess whether suggested sites are suitable for large developments and whether they would be sustainable and close enough to services.
The Shetland Charitable Trust has been making decisions on the community’s behalf to spend undisclosed amounts of public money buying up hill land around Lerwick for potentially 70 houses and a new Anderson High School. As well as the lump of the North Staney Hill acquired by the trust last week the council owns vast swathes of prime real estate at the Knab and most of the Ness of Sound, which it bought to build housing schemes on but instead left as a farm. Ideas for what should be done with all this land are being sought as part of this review. For instance, should parts be allocated for housing to allow developers to draw up well-thought-out larger schemes?
There is another debate to be had about preventing commercial buildings being turned into offices and homes, which has featured in recent years in relation to the Staney Hill Shop, which was saved, and the Herrislea House Hotel. The preferred proposals put forward in the report are to try to keep the same use for employment and retail sites and, more specifically, to limit the number of charity shops in the town centre to try to ensure Lerwick provides a varied shopping experience. Some might say it is a bit late.
Alternatively, not bothering to intervene might be an option which could encourage entrepreneurship but perhaps at the expense of diversity in the town.
In an attempt to get to grips with the problems of an increasing elderly population the planning group and its consultees believe the council and NHS Shetland should assess the need for new housing for older folk which would allow them to continue living independently longer rather than having to go into a care home. The vision is to identify good places for new schemes and encourage developers to build them rather than continuing the current more hands-off policy of simply advocating that accessible housing should be built.
Mrs Nelson said there was no suggestion that older people would be ghettoized like they are in American retirement villages. In fact the whole idea is to ensure that they remain integrated with the rest of society and able to use local amenities. Much more information on all the big issues is available on the special website at www.planshetland.org where you can also submit your views online through a questionnaire, by email to MIR@shetland.gov.uk or by writing to Philip Stephenson, Freepost, Sco4317, Lerwick, ZE1 0BR.
The deadline for comments has been extended by a month to Monday, 7th June.
A series of information days and workshops has already been held with many more to come around the districts in the coming weeks. Details are online and will be advertised in The Shetland Times.