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Council / Old library refurbishment to go ahead

The old library on Hillhead is set to be refurbished for an estimated £1.6 million. Photo: Shetland News

COUNCILLORS have decided to proceed with refurbishing the old Lerwick Library at a cost of around £1.6 million.

Services are set to move back to the building from the old St Ringan’s church across the road where the library is currently located.

St Ringan’s will become the new home of council meetings instead of Lerwick Town Hall once library services have moved out.

The decision to go ahead with the old library refurbishment came at a meeting of the full council on Tuesday, with strong support for the plans.

Staff say the proposal to bring library services back under one roof in the old building would be more efficient than the current set-up.

Shetland Islands Council’s assets, commissioning and procurement manager Robert Sinclair, however, said in a report that the estimated cost for this has now increased to around £1.6 million – meaning councillors would have to approve spending another £722,221 as only £900,000 has been budgeted for it so far.

The increase in its projected price is down to a rise in construction costs since the proposal was first mooted in 2015, particularly for mechanical and electrical services, and an underestimation of fees and recharges.

Much of the discussion from councillors, however, was around the proposal to move the council chamber to the St Ringan’s building once lending services are moved out.

There has been long-held frustration that the current council chamber downstairs in Lerwick Town Hall is not fit for purpose, with concerns over a lack of space one of the main issues.

Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said having council meetings in a vacated St Ringan’s building would be the most cost-effective alternative, as it would not require any structural changes.

She said it would largely involve additional furniture and an audio and video set-up to be installed to allow Shetland Islands Council meetings to be broadcast for the first time.

The main library service has been located at the former St Ringan’s church since 2002, but it also operates from the adjoining learning centre as well as in some parts of the old library building nearby.

Original proposals to revamp the whole of the old building were previously approved by councillors in 2015 but that refurbishment was never carried out when staff were decanted into the building after the local authority’s headquarters at 8 North Ness was evacuated over safety fears.

After officers suggested last year to refurbish only the outside of the old building, which is deteriorating and needs “intervention”, council officers recommended again to revert back to the original plan, which involves refurbishing the whole building including both floors and the basement, and then bring it back in use as a library.

The business case which provided the backdrop to the 2015 decision had been reviewed due to the increased estimated costs and also the impending redevelopment of the old Anderson High School site.

The Bruce Family Centre, which currently operates from the Bruce Hostel at the old school site, had been earmarked to transfer to the St Ringan’s building if library services moved out, but “alternatives are now being explored for those services and St Ringan’s is no longer the preferred option”.

This led officers to propose that the building could be used as chamber for council meetings instead, and for the learning centre next door to be re-purposed as councillors’ offices.

Currently councillors have office and meeting space in Lystina House, which is connected onto the Town Hall.

Sandison confirmed that having a webcasting facility would be incorporated into plans for the proposed new council chamber to enable the public to engage more thoroughly in local democracy.

“It’s something that we are thinking that we build into the move to St Ringan’s,” she said.

Lerwick North councillor Peter Campbell asked if any other buildings had been considered for the new chamber, with Sandison saying that there had been suggestions about utilising a building on the old Anderson High School site, which is due to be redeveloped.

But she said using the Anderson Educational Institute building would mean “we would just be replicating some of the experiences we have in this room in another building” due to its layout.

It was also noted that the basement of St Ringan’s would still be used for storing books regardless of what the future use of the building would be.

North Mainland member Alastair Cooper quipped that he was glad to hear books would be kept in the basement so that it could be said there would at least be some “knowledge in the building”.

South mainland councillor George Smith said it was “ironic” that much of the discussion was on the proposed new council chamber rather than the library, which was the main topic of decision.

He praised the “excellent service” provided by staff and said that the recommended option was the “best” one to take.

“I think it will give us a library that is more efficient to run,” the education and families committee chairman said.

Council leader Steven Coutts, meanwhile, said moving the chamber to St Ringan’s would amount to a “simple room change” and backed the idea.

“It’s not far away – it’s just down the road,” he added.

Shetland Central member Ian Scott, however, felt that the decision on the chamber should have been taken at a different time to the one on the library refurbishment.

He also suggested that he had been unaware of the plans, but Coutts reiterated that the chamber proposal was something officers had consulted councillors on.

A motion from George Smith to approve the plans – refurbishing the old library and moving the council chamber to St Ringan’s – was put to vote against Scott’s wish to see the library project given the go-ahead and for the chamber proposal to be discussed at a later meeting.

Smith’s motion, however, beat Scott’s by 14 votes to five, meaning that the Lerwick Library refurbishment project was back on track.