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Council / SIC and hoteliers lose planning battle over Sella Ness camp

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

THE SELLA Ness accommodation facility is set to stay open until 2026 after Scottish ministers ruled Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) decision to refuse further temporary planning permission was “unreasonable”.

The Scottish Government’s assistant chief reporter Karen Heywood also ordered the council to pay Malthus Uniteam’s (the appellant) expenses of the appeal.

The decision, published on Monday on the government’s website, was welcomed by the company and condemned by a group of local hotel owners who had strongly objected to the plans.

In a short statement the SIC’s chair of planning, councillor Emma Macdonald, said: “The council received the reporter’s decision this morning, and both officials and councillors will be looking at it in detail to consider what, if any lessons, can be learned.”

Malthus Uniteam (UK) appealed to Scottish ministers after councillors rejected its application to extend the life of the 426-bedroom facility at the Sella Ness industrial estate by a further five years in May 2019.

The company hopes to provide accommodation to workers involved in possible future renewable energy developments, but councillors found the application to be “speculative” and contrary to the islands’ local development plan.

However, in two separate decision notes, Heywood found in favour of Malthus, granted planning permission and said the SIC had failed to give the applicant “complete, precise and relevant reasons for refusal”.

She said that in refusing the planning application the council merely stated that the proposal was contrary to local development plan policies GP1, GP2 and H7 but did not give any explanation as to why the development didn’t comply with these policies.

In addition, policy H7 wasn’t even relevant in the circumstances of this particular application, she said.

During the appeal process, the SIC did not submit a separate appeal statement but merely the original committee report which recommended approval for a further two years.

She wrote: “In my view, while there is still a need for the facility to support the terminal and gas plant and also the prospect that there may well be a need to house wind farm construction workers, it would be wasteful and unsustainable to remove it.

“While I am sympathetic to the problems faced by local hoteliers, I am also mindful that loss of trade and increased competition are not material planning considerations.”

She added: “I conclude that the reason for refusal is not complete or precise and that the council has not supported its reason for refusal or shown that it has reasonable planning grounds for its decision. This amounts to unreasonable behaviour on the part of the council.

“In my decision on the appeal I have concluded that the proposed development complies with the development plan (…).  Consequently, I consider it should not have been necessary for the case to come before Scottish ministers for determination.

“I find the council liable to the appellant in respect of the expenses of the appeal.”

Welcoming the decision, Malthus Uniteam’s managing director for its UK operation, Ian Jamieson, said: “We believe the capacity of the existing facility is crucial to meeting immediate, medium and long-term demand for worker accommodation for existing and future energy and construction sector projects.

“The Sella Ness facility also employs a significant number of local staff and contributes considerably to the local economy in a number of ways, including engaging local suppliers and sub-contractors.”

Referring to the decision on expenses, Jamieson added that it would be inappropriate to comment at this stage as these have to be agreed first between Malthus Uniteam and the SIC.

Hotel and guesthouse owners in Shetland’s north mainland said they were extremely concerned by the reporter’s decision.

SNAP (Shetland North Accommodation Providers) – Busta House Hotel, Drumquin Guest House, Brae Hotel, St Magnus Bay Hotel, Moorfield Hotel, Valleyfield Guest House and Greystones Guest House – had objected to the extension as it was seen as undermining their business.

Its spokesman Joe Rocks said the group’s members were “baffled” as to why the reporter had chosen to overturn the local decision when, in his words, “the evidence was that Sella Ness is not required”.

He added that as a direct consequence of the decision jobs would be lost in the sector.

“This decision ignores the local communities served by the facilities provided by SNAP. It is very likely that more accommodation providers will close, resulting in more jobs being lost. This should have been prevented,” he said.

“Sella Ness was meant to be decommissioned in 2015, and then 2020, but now it is due to exist for over 15 years. We shudder to think what local facilities will be left by the next time Sella Ness is due to be dismantled.”

The accommodation camp initially opened in 2011 to serve workers building the Shetland Gas Plant.