SHETLAND Islands Council has been leasing out a former Lerwick care home as a hostel for construction workers without planning permission, it has emerged.
Since last May businessman Frank Strang’s company Shetland FM has been leasing Viewforth House in Lerwick to accommodate workers helping to build the new Anderson High School for the local authority.
Councillor Billy Fox said the SIC earning money from leasing the Burgh Road building without planning consent could be considered hypocrisy and was the final straw that led to his surprise resignation as deputy leader last week.
However council development director Neil Grant said that it was up to the lessee and not the SIC as landlord to ensure planning consent was in place.
The lease was agreed by the council’s asset management department, which has delegated authority to maximise income from the SIC’s empty buildings.
But the planning department was unhappy and insisted on a retrospective application, which was not lodged until July 2015.
Consent was refused last month on the grounds of insufficient car parking space and traffic management issues raised by the council’s roads service.
Grant said that he understood a fresh planning application had now been lodged, while Shetland FM has also up to three months to appeal February’s refusal.
But Fox said the situation could have been avoided had the lease been made on condition that planning consent had to be in place before workers could move in.
“I have been asking questions about this since July last year and I have not been getting satisfactory answers,” he said.
“My issue is that we are leasing out a building, which had a change of use, and the planning consent for that has not been given.
“I am concerned about the process and the potential reputational damage to the council.
“Last week I was still not getting satisfactory answers, and that was the trigger point for me to resign from the post as deputy leader.”
He said there were other reasons behind his resignation nine days ago, which at the time he described as concerns about “policy and process”.
Strang emailed council chief executive Mark Boden on behalf of Shetland FM in late February saying he was puzzled by the car parking issues because as a care home it housed “at least a similar amount of residents and many more staff than we have there at the moment”.
The residents working on the AHS project do not have vehicles and “we have actually offered to put in 16 extra car parking places”, he wrote.
“We have committed a lot of effort to this project and it should be a win/win not least for the council.
“If we carry on down the path we are on the building will become a redundant and unsaleable asset for SIC which I am sure is the last thing you want.”
Grant responded saying the planning authority had “to act fairly and independently of the council”.
He said “more than sufficient time” had been given to address parking and other issues, adding that planning and building control had “worked hard and flexibly” on Shetland FM’s Viewforth application.
“The importance of parking, traffic flows and congestion cannot be underestimated in terms of road user safety and there is a limit to how long we can permit a retrospective application to remain undetermined whilst the operation continues.”
Grant told Shetland News the developer was not able to provide enough information to convince them it had sufficiently addressed the parking issue.
“It’s important for the council as planning/building control to behave on an absolutely neutral and equal basis whether it’s a council-owned property or whatever,” Grant stressed.
If no resolution is found, he acknowledged “areas of enforcement” open to the planning authority included possible eviction but “I believe they’ve put in a fresh application so I can’t say anything more”.
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