THE SELLA Ness accommodation camp is on course to close next year after councillors rejected an application to extend its temporary planning permission until 2026.
Members of Shetland Islands Council’s planning committee agreed on Monday that forecasted demand at the 426-bedroom facility was “speculative”, while they reiterated that it was contrary to the islands’ Local Development Plan.
The facility’s owners, Malthus Uniteam, had applied for the building – which had 150 people staying in it on Monday – to remain open until 2026.
The council’s planning service recommended to members of the local authority’s planning committee to keep the camp – which is currently operated by Sodexo – open until 2022 to see if there was demand from proposed large construction projects like the Viking Energy wind farm.
But the six councillors on the planning committee expressed concern on Monday that potential demand was not set in stone.
Chairman Theo Smith said the “future need is speculative and to date unproven”.
“I know it’s not a material consideration, but two of the statutory consultees which are two local community councils in Delting and Northmavine, have objected,” Smith added.
“And I think if we are going to get planning to work properly, we have to listen to what wir communities say. It’s always been my view that we don’t sometimes pay a lot of attention to what our community says.”
Objections to the application had also been received from accommodation providers across Shetland and particularly in the North Mainland, where warnings were made that hotels and guest houses could be forced to close if the camp continued to stay open and offer beds for contract workers.
Councillors were advised by the planning service, though, that “impacts which could result in a loss of trade or increased competition are not a material planning consideration”.
The camp opened in 2011 at the Sella Ness Industrial Estate to serve workers building the nearby Shetland Gas Plant.
The camp’s owners pointed to possible renewable developments – as well as continuing oil and gas work – as reasons why demand for beds would be there in coming years.
Planners admitted in a report to councillors that the camp is contrary to the Shetland Local Development Plan as it occupies land with development potential for industrial use and “potentially sterilises areas around it”.
It is also contrary to two other policies of the plan due to its residential nature.
But officials said granting further temporary planning permission would not be “inconsistent with the approach that the council has taken before to support the delivery of major infrastructure and sustainable developments”.
The camp, built on land at the Sella Ness industrial estate owned by Shetland Islands Council, was first granted temporary planning permission in 2010 before it was later renewed for a further five years through to the end of November 2020.
Malthus Uniteam says proposed wind energy projects in Shetland – like the consented Viking Energy, Mossy Hill and Beaw Field developments, as well as the mooted Energy Isles farm in Yell – are expected to involve around 400 workers.
North mainland councillor Andrea Manson, who is involved with the St Magnus Bay Hotel in Hillswick and Brae’s Greystones guesthouse, had declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the planning board meeting on Monday.
The meeting heard from the planning service’s development manager team leader John Holden, who said the extension application was “not a significant departure from policy”.
He said extending the permission through to 2022 would allow those involved to “keep options open” regarding potential large construction projects.
Shetland Central member Davie Sandison asked whether the camp could revert back to its initial set-up of double occupancy rooms – bringing a total capacity of over 800 – if granted the extension, with Holden confirming that could be the case.
The committee also heard from two objectors, Caroline McKenzie of Scalloway Hotel and Joe Rocks, who represented a group called Shetland North Accommodation Providers.
McKenzie said she objected to the application because “I’m worried about my business”, as well as the accommodation sector as a whole.
She believed a report included in the planning application on future demand was unclear.
“It’s got more red herrings than a Jimmy Perez plot,” the hotelier said.
Reiterating how stopover demand from Scatsta Airport traffic had reduced for her business in recent times, McKenzie said last year Scalloway Hotel received £1,600 income from Bristow, while two years before that figure was £36,000.
She also said occupancy rates in the off-season had dropped significantly.
Rocks, meanwhile, said before the gas plant accommodation need from the industries was met locally and that anything exceptional and “genuinely temporary” was served by floatels.
The former local hotelier added that planning service officials “were not informed” when compiling its report for councillors as they did not seek further evidence to quantify the impact on local businesses.
“Its continued presence is killing the accommodation providers,” Rocks added.
He also quoted an email said to have come out of Sullom Voe that instructed companies to house their workers at Sella Ness “irrespective if they can get a better deal elsewhere”.
Sella Ness camp owner Malthus Uniteam also gave representation, with agent Daniel Harrington describing a temporary extension as the “most appropriate” way of dealing with future demand.
He said a study complied by Biggar Economics showed that there would be a total future demand of between 690 and 910 accommodation spaces if all of the proposed wind projects went ahead.
Malthus Uniteam managing director Ian Jamieson added that it was projected for the existing demand of 150 to be maintained through to 2026, with maintenance work at Sullom Voe Terminal and the gas plant in addition to the proposed wind projects likely to add more numbers.
After questioning from Lerwick councillor Cecil Smith, Harrington also said that council planners advised that Malthus Uniteam requested temporary rather than permanent permission again as it would give the local authority more control over the dismantling of the building when its permit expires.
South mainland member George Smith led the discussion after the three short presentations and he cut to the chase by saying he was of a mind to refuse the application due to the “speculative” demand forecast and the camp’s contravention the local development plan.
His motion to turn down the application was seconded by North Mainland member Emma Macdonald, who did, however, note that the facility does provide employment.
Sandison also said he thought the committee should refuse the application, highlighting in particular that the camp was sited on land which could be used for industrial development.
Westside member and chairman Theo Smith said he had a number of concerns and said it was not a “healthy” situation for repeated temporary planning applications to be submitted.
North Isles member Duncan Simpson agreed and noted that the camp had previously been given a temporary extension for the proposed gas sweeting plant at Sullom Voe, which never materialised.
“It’s the speculative nature for me that’s the big negative,” he said.
Cecil Smith was the final councillor to have his say, backing up what had been said before and highlighted that “we don’t know if Viking is going to happen”.
George Smith’s motion to refuse the application on the grounds that it contravenes sections of Shetland’s Local Development Plan was then passed.
Malthus Uniteam has the right to appeal the ruling, while as its planning permission runs until November 2020 there is time for another application.
Jamieson said after the ruling that the company would assess with situation before deciding what to do next.
Rocks, meanwhile, said the accommodation providers were “obviously pleased” with the decision.
“Additionally it was actually quite encouraging to hear the points which were being raised, because all of the councillors spoke in the debate after they heard the input from the objectors and the applicant,” he said.
But Rocks felt that it will not be the last time the Sella Ness camp comes before the planning committee.
“I am confident that people will be sitting around these tables again before the end of 18 months,” he said.
“I’ll be very, very surprised if there wasn’t another application, either a temporary application or a permanent planning application, which is how it should have been built, and I believe that would have been rejected.”