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Student flats ‘taking much longer than hoped’

An image from the planning application of what the proposed student accommodation would look like from Commercial Road.

CONCERNS have been raised over the length of time it is taking for the proposed 80-bed student accommodation block in Lerwick to come to fruition, with Brexit seemingly putting off European investors.

The new worries over the viability of plans by Chester-based developers Cityheart to build accommodation for the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) on Commercial Road come nearly two years after the project received its planning permission.

It follows suggestions that the now disused Janet Courtney Hostel at the old Anderson High School site could be redeveloped to provide student accommodation instead.

The decision by landlords Shetland Property and Leasing Ltd (SLAP) to sell the Commercial Road land to Cityheart in 2016 to create accommodation for UHI proved controversial, with engineering company HNP – which had been based at site for nearly half a century – becoming embroiled in a dispute for months before being ousted to new premises at the Lower Blackhill Industrial Estate.

Cityheart has been approached for comment but no response has been received.

The HNP which was set to be demolished to make way for student accommodation. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

Chairman of the Shetland College board Peter Campbell admitted that the accommodation block is “taking much longer than we’d hoped”.

UHI announced in 2015 that it had struck a deal with Cityheart to build the halls of residence as part of a £44 million deal to create nearly 700 new beds for students across the Highlands and Islands, but the Brexit vote 2016 has given some financial backers doubts.

“Brexit has been part of the problem, because my understanding was that the financial backers were to an extent European, and there was a bit of a concern on their part following Brexit,” Campbell said.

The councillor added that there was a requirement for student accommodation in Lerwick regardless of what happens with the Commercial Road project.

“There’s a clear need for student accommodation that would allow not only students to come in to the college and the NAFC, but it would also mean that students in the likes of Unst and Yell, who would find it almost impossible to commute, would be able to come and base themselves in Lerwick and attend college,” Campbell said.

The college board chairman described the Janet Courtney hostel now being available as an “unfortunate situation”, with it known for a number of years that the building would eventually be vacated as pupils moved to the new school site at Lower Staney Hill.

He said the idea of the listed building being used as student accommodation has been raised at public meetings held by architects who are forming a masterplan for the old Anderson site.

“At the public meeting in the town hall in March, there was no dissent from that suggestion – everybody seemed quite happy with that being proposed. But the question is funding. Who takes on the responsibility of provision?” Campbell said.

College board chairman Peter Campbell said getting student accommodation is "taking much longer than we’d hoped".

“It’s an unfortunate situation which has developed. We would feel we need to do something ideally as quickly as possible. It doesn’t look as it will be all that quick, but we’re confident that ultimately we will get student accommodation.”

He added that Cityheart would not have been interested in redeveloping the hostel as it is focussed on new builds.

When asked about the prospect of looking into alternative sites, a spokesman for the UHI said the “university has yet to receive a competent and funded proposal that it can formally consider.”

HNP director Ian Walterson said that while he could not comment on the situation involving the site, his company’s move across Lerwick to its new premises was troublesome for the business.

“It was a very disruptive sort of period for the business during the relocation exercise. It certainly had a negative impact on our trade,” he said.

“But now we’ve established ourselves up here and our customers know that we still exist and know where we’re at, things are sort of getting back to normal again.”

He backed the suggestion that the Janet Courtney hostel – or similarly the Bruce hostel, which is also listed – could be used for students.

“The best thing would be to find a use for them, and if there is a need for a hostel for student accommodation, then perhaps that would be a good option to look at,” he said.