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News / Councillors back new Eric Gray building

Parents and carers, pictured following the meeting, are "very pleased" that a new care centre will be built. Photo: Shetnews

CAMPAIGNERS have welcomed Shetland Islands Council’s decision to push ahead with a new £5.6 million purpose-built centre for adults with learning disabilities and complex needs.

Day care services currently provided at the Eric Gray centre and the council’s Gressy Loan premises will instead be delivered from a new “hub” built on the former hockey pitch at Seafield in the south of Lerwick.

Members of the local authority’s social services committee unanimously backed chairman Cecil Smith’s motion to push ahead with a new building rather than refurbishing the existing premises.

The move was later rubber-stamped by the SIC’s policy and resources committee on Monday afternoon, and will go before the full council next week.

The project has been beset with delays over the past five years and Smith said he was “very understanding about all the knocks” Eric Gray users have taken.

With growing demand for the service he accepts the case for a new centre allowing public sector agencies to work together to bolster the quality of day care.

Smith acknowledged that funding would be “difficult and challenging, and will require close scrutiny”, with the council borrowing money and exploring “all avenues” for external funding.

He intends to set a “rigorous timescale”, and it is hoped that construction work can begin next summer.

More than a dozen campaigners were present at Lerwick Town Hall to witness the decision being taken on Monday morning.

John Hunter, who has a daughter who will use the Eric Gray centre in a couple of years, said afterwards that he felt “reassured” and “very positive” that the project was back on track.

“Nobody there seemed to be against it,” he said. “There were one or two queries on where the money comes from, but everybody seemed to be wanting it to happen.”

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The new building will increase floor space by some 75 per cent, to 1,800 square metres – addressing one of users’ chief concerns about the existing buildings.

The capital cost is forecast at £5.65 million, with a further £250,000 to demolish the surplus properties.

A combination of increased staffing to cater for greater demand and annual borrowing repayments means the service’s budget will jump by just over half a million pounds, from £1.36 million to £1.87 million a year.

Community health and social care director Simon Bokor-Ingram said “quite a significant sum” in efficiency savings would have to be found to fund repayment costs.

Councillor Alastair Cooper pointed out that much of the spending increase would have been incurred even if the council had plumped for modifying the existing buildings.

The number of day care users is projected to almost double from 68 today to 129 by 2038. Even by this decade’s end pressure on the service will be growing, with the number forecast to rise to 91.

Political leader Gary Robinson said that opting for a “hub” model “might make funding available” from outside Shetland.

Finance chief James Gray said later in the day, however, that he “maybe wouldn’t hold out too much hope for external funding” given that demand will only build gradually and “it’s 25 year years until you fill the place”.

Several other parents present welcomed the decision. Kenny Groat said there was “still a bit to go”, especially in terms of securing funding, but he hopes having the service on a single site will result in some savings too.

“This building is for the whole of Shetland and for all the communities in Shetland,” he added.

Rebecca Sinclair, whose teenage daughter attends Gressy Loan, said she felt “a sense of relief”, while May MacDonald felt it was “important to remember how the services users feel”.

“They want to be together in the same location, and they have a lot of strong views on how things have turned out,” she said. “To listen to them more, their opinions and their views, would be really helpful for everyone involved.”

A feasibility study was carried out and approved way back in October 2006. The old hockey pitch at Seafield was later installed as the preferred site, and planning permission – which expires in October – was granted in principle.

It had been anticipated that building work would begin in 2012/13 and be completed within 20 months. But capital spending cuts saw the project grind to a halt, prompting users’ families to voice “sadness and distress” at the lack of progress in December.

Talk of moving the Clickimin caravan site to Seafield had caused particular angst – forcing Smith to intervene and get agreement from the committee stipulating that the hockey pitch be set aside for the replacement Eric Gray.

Hunter felt the intervention of parents and carers had “brought it to the forefront”. He said” “If it hadn’t been for people pressing, nothing would have happened. With all the council cutbacks it was one that just got scrubbed, but it’s come to a head now.”

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