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Plans to keep Sella Ness accommodation open until 2026

The Sella Ness accommodation block.
The Sella Ness accommodation camp.

DECIDING against renewing planning permission for the Sella Ness accommodation camp could have a “significant impact” on major renewable energy projects proposed for Shetland, according to the facility’s owner.

Malthus Uniteam has now formally applied to Shetland Islands Council to extend the planning permission for its 426-room workers’ accommodation until 2026.

Temporary permission is in place until 30 November 2020, but its owner wants to continue operations due to demand at Sullom Voe Terminal and Shetland Gas Plant – as well as possible future demand associated with construction projects like the Viking Energy wind farm.

Malthus Uniteam has warned planners that closing the facility could lead to companies scaling back operations at Sullom Voe due to an apparent lack of accommodation, and wind farm construction projects being affected.

The company points to the proposed Viking, Mossy Hill, Beaw Field and Energy Isles wind farms as bringing a potential combined accommodation demand for up to 450 construction workers.

It also says there is life yet in the oil and gas industry, which has been reiterated by last week’s news that oil has started flowing into Sullom Voe Terminal from the Clair Ridge development west of Shetland.

The Sella Ness camp, which currently employs 22 people and is now operated by international facilities management company Sodexo, was opened in 2011 to house workers building the nearby Shetland Gas Plant.

North Mainland accommodation providers, however, say the Sella Ness facility has taken business away from them.

Former Busta House Hotel owner Joe Rocks said in May that local accommodation businesses needed more protection.

“If the facility at Sella Ness continues to mop up the revenues that are the lifeblood of the North Mainland’s accommodation providers, it’s difficult to see a viable future for any of them,” he said.

The Sella Ness camp’s application for planning extension says that competition between the facility and “these providers [in the North Mainland] is not a planning matter, but the continued choice and price competition will assist in ensuring that the location remains attractive for continued and future investment at Sullom Voe and Sella Ness to the benefit of the local economy”.

“All of these facilities, including the accommodation facility, feed value back into the local community through local employment and business rates,” it adds.

The application also says that “there can be conflicts in the peak season between the demand for tourist accommodation and for workers accommodation and where insufficient bed spaces are available this would have a negative effect on the tourism offer in Lerwick”.

Malthus Uniteam adds that the Sella Ness facility is well placed to serve any future expansion of the Sullom Voe harbour area, which is currently the subject of a masterplan as a blanket ban on new developments looks set to be lifted.

As part of the application, Shetland Islands Council would have control over the decommissioning and reinstatement of the site when its permission lapses.

Current demand at the Sella Ness facility includes around 120-140 workers employed by Sullom Voe Terminal operators EnQuest, and around 50-80 subcontractors at the terminal.

A further 100 gas plant workers are “currently accommodated elsewhere in the area and may require accommodation”, according to the planning application.

The application adds that “this, along with short-term demand from Scatsta Airport and ad-hoc maintenance projects at the terminals, creates a total demand at the moment for around 270 workers”.

The facility initially provided 426 rooms and planned for 852 bed spaces based on double occupancy, but bunk beds were replaced with single beds in 2016 – reducing total bed space to 426.

In addition to bedrooms, the camp also includes dining, laundry and recreational facilities, as well as a bar, lounge and external recreational spaces.

Temporary planning permission for the facility was first granted in 2010 and it was renewed for another five years in 2015.

The owner admits that it “has been in place for a number of years and would no doubt benefit from capital investment to upgrade certain items of plant and equipment, and to enhance some of the building fabric”.

“This can only be possible if there is longer term certainty that the facility can remain in place”, it adds.