Another major construction project has moved closer to development after councillors agreed not to object to the new £200 million power station at Lerwick’s Rova Head.
However, the news has sparked a warning that planning staff are being burdened with too much responsibility for large-scale developments given the “peppercorn fee” they are permitted to charge by the Scottish government.
SIC planning committee chairman Frank Robertson said the £16,000 maximum limit for planning fees charged to applicants failed to reflect the enormity of jobs tackled by SIC workers.
As well as the power station, planning staff have also had to deal with the new gas plant at Total and a whole host of other developments. In total 60 applications have been submitted to the planning service in the last month, with plans for the new Anderson High School due to go in soon.
Mr Robertson would like to see a charging system introduced which was more in line with planning developments south of the border. He said the average fee for a major project in England was around a quarter of a million pounds.
Mr Robertson said the time had come for fees to be more commensurate with the level of work required by officials. That, he said, should keep fees charged to private house-builders down to the more reasonable £200-£300.
He told fellow committee members on Tuesday: “This planning service is sometimes criticised … But we manage some of the biggest projects in Scotland, and all for a peppercorn fee.
“We have the £800 million gas plant, and they have got to deal with all of the conditions in relation to that. Now there is the power station and, on top of that, the new Anderson High School.
“I attended the annual planning convener’s conference, and brought it up with them. The answer from them was ‘when you improve your overall planning performance, we’ll allow you to put up your fees’. But Shetland’s performance is extremely high.”
After the meeting Mr Robertson cited the Total gas plant at Sullom Voe as just one example of a major development that has required major work from limited numbers of planning staff.
He said: “That was a major project on a massive scale, involving environmental impact assessments, archaeology, environment, roads and everything else. I think the documents came in on a forklift.”
He added that documents relating to the Viking Energy windfarm had taken up an entire store at Grantfield.
“The planning staff have been extremely patient,” Mr Robertson said. “They are extremely dedicated and they never complain. Their staff have been cut back – they took a hit with staff reduction, in that they did not replace some who had left.
“On top of that, the planning department is completely reviewing the local development plan. That’s a massive document. The Scottish government are keeping their beady eye on it the whole time. That must be done within a certain timescale. The pressure had been phenomenal.”
Meanwhile, approval of Scottish and Southern Energy’s 120 megawatt development rests with the Scottish government’s energy consents unit.
But the planning committee agreed not to stand in the way of the plans designed to replace the town’s ageing power station, which was built in 1953.
Assuming there are no hold-ups, work on the new plant, penned for a 33-hectare site, should start by the end of the year. The construction period is expected to last 32 months and should employ up to 400 workers.
It will initially run on light fuel oil, but could convert to natural gas if pipes are laid down from the gas plant at Sullom Voe.
The new power station is part of Scottish Hydro Electric Power Distribution’s (SHEPD’s) integrated plan for Shetland which was submitted in July last year. The plan is in the process of being considered by energy regulator Ofgem.
SHEPD Shetland operations manager Darren Hitchin said: “We welcome the committee’s discussion of the proposed replacement power station near Rova Head and the decision to raise no objection.
“The final decision on planning consent rests with the Scottish ministers and we await their consideration of the application in due course.
“Since Shetland is not connected to the GB grid, it is important that we carefully consider all options in order to find the best solution for our customers. The submission of the planning application is part of that process.
“However, future arrangements for meeting the needs of customers in Shetland also require the approval of the energy regulator Ofgem.
“SHEPD submitted proposals for Shetland to Ofgem last year, which included our analysis on the proposed replacement power station, and we await their decision.”