Millions of pounds in community funds could be devoted to the biggest programme of council-house building in the isles since the oil boom days of the 1970s.
SIC convener Sandy Cluness and other councillors are eager to see a portion of the £500 million oil reserves spent on up to 400 new local authority homes in an effort to make serious inroads into a perennial waiting list of around 1,000 people.
Attempts to date have been insufficient and “not very fruitful” in reducing the size of the list, Mr Cluness said during today’s services committee meeting in Lerwick Town Hall.
Against a backdrop of savage government spending cuts, he envisages it will take roughly £30-40 million – drawn from a combination of SIC and Shetland Charitable Trust reserves, along with any available outside funding – to pay for between 300 and 400 new residences in addition to those already planned.
Mr Cluness gained unanimous agreement around the chamber for his suggestion of a “high level” meeting between the council, charitable trust and Hjaltland Housing to put together a long-term plan of action. “If we could have plans in place fairly soon, hopefully it gives some kind of hope to everybody that’s stuck on that list,” he told The Shetland Times following the meeting.
Both the council and the charitable trust’s property arm Slap possess substantial tracts of land which he wants to see new developments go on. For example, 70 new council houses could go up relatively quickly on Slap-owned land at Staney Hill which is already zoned for housing if the SIC finds the money to pay for them.
During the David Clark era, members agreed to spend £20 million over five years on new housing. On the back of that, the local authority already has firm plans for 100 homes, including 76 as part of the ongoing £8 million Hoofields redevelopment in the north of Lerwick and 10 new houses being built in Brae.
SIC housing chief Chris Medley said that between the council and Hjaltland, 265 houses are planned to go up within the next five years. But he agreed that does not go nearly far enough and backed Mr Cluness’ call for efforts to be intensified.
Mr Cluness believes a large investment would be of “supreme benefit” to the community because it would help get individuals out of sometimes awkward personal circumstances and keep the construction industry buoyant. The council would be left with bricks and mortar assets, along with income from rent for several decades.
“We have to look together with the charitable trust and Hjaltland to see if we can come up with some more radical proposals,” said Mr Cluness. “We have to see whether we can’t do better than just applying to central government.”
He said: “Hjaltland have done a pretty good job in what they’ve done but, because of the time it takes and the money they’re allocated, by the time we’ve built 30 to 40 houses another 30 or 40 are on the waiting list. So we haven’t been able to reduce this huge list much below 1,000 for some time now.
“We’d need to build 3-400 houses, in addition to what Hjaltland is building. In order to do that we need to think in terms of using some of the reserves we have in the council, and with the charitable trust, to see if we can come up with a programme to get us a lot of houses.”
Councillors queued up to endorse the convener’s remarks. Regular foe Jonathan Wills fully agreed that spending some of the reserves on a new generation of public housing would be an “enormously good investment”. It would create assets which could earn money for several decades and is a “much better bet than BP or an Irish bank” in the long term, he suggested.
Betty Fullerton acknowledged the need for “innovative ways” to tackle the dearth of houses, noting a big rise in the need for single-person accommodation.
Cecil Smith did flag up the risk of there being “no-one to build the houses” with major construction projects including Total’s new gas plant in the next few years.
There was a note of caution, too, from Rick Nickerson. He wants to be sure that hundreds of new houses are not going to be solely in Lerwick and its suburbs.
New chief executive Alistair Buchan has vowed to work to alleviate the centralisation of population and economic activity in and around the town. Mr Cluness recognised there is work to be done on that front as well, but said many people expressed a desire to live in the town and the council had to try to meet their wishes.
“I don’t think we can get by that,” he said. “If people want to live in Lerwick, that’s the way it has to go. But if we can provide reasonable housing schemes outwith Lerwick that might encourage folk to stay where they are.”
For full story, see tomorrow’s Shetland Times.