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Business / Total move adds to dire situation for accommodation providers

Former hotelier questions future for isles hotels

The £6.5 million Moorfield Hotel was opened on Tuesday.
The £6.5 million Moorfield Hotel was opened in August 2013.

NORTH Mainland councillors have spoken of their disappointment that Shetland Gas Plant operator Total is to relocate its workforce from Moorfield Hotel near Brae to the Sella Ness accommodation block.

Both facilities were built to house workers at the gas plant, with Total guaranteeing 80 beds at the Moorfield until 2020.

Sella Ness owner Malthus Uniteam succeeded in having a council decision to refuse extension of its planning permission overturned in January. Sodexo took over the running of the block from Shetland FM in 2018.

Sella Ness’s continuation as an accommodation provider had been widely opposed by the local hotel industry, conscious of its impact on trade, as well as the SIC.

While the much larger Sella Ness block has been dedicated entirely to industrial use, the Moorfield Hotel has also catered to tourists and local people alike with its more traditional hotel format.

North mainland councillor and depute leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

Shetland North councillor Emma Macdonald said that while the move would be a terrible blow for the north mainland, businesses had to make business decisions.

She added: “Obviously it’s very disappointing for all the staff and the area, especially with Scatsta going as well – it will have huge implications.

“The only positive is that, I hope, some of the people will get work at the camp.”

With the hotel business already reeling from the impact of coronavirus, it is another huge loss for the Moorfield.

“Especially with the current climate it’s going to be a difficult time for hotels in general, so that will come as a real blow to them,” added Macdonald, who said that it was paramount for the present guidelines on coronavirus to be maintained and for people to stay safe.

Her Shetland North colleague Alastair Cooper said that while he hoped the hotel would be able to remain open and keep on at least some staff, the signs were ominous.

Cooper said: “Like everyone else in the community I am very disappointed.

Councillor Alastair Cooper.

“The Moorfield Hotel has been providing a service to the community as well as the Total workforce. Sunday carveries, coffees and meals, it has been providing all that to the public of Shetland.”

Cooper said the loss of the contract would potentially lead to heavy job losses in the community, though further industrial developments in the isles could go some way to mitigate this.

“I sincerely hope it can stay open for the sake of the jobs but I cannot envisage at the moment where the footfall is coming from,” he added.

With the state of the hotel trade at the moment, there would be great competition for anything that might spin out of short or medium term contracts.

Cooper added: “Malthus Uniteam has looked after their business rightly, but at very significant cost to the Shetland community.”

Cooper added that having been aware of the possibility of Total switching its business, he was “not surprised” when he heard of the new deal.

He said: “It is very, very disappointing, but not surprising given what the Scottish Government did to us.

“It is very depressing for the community with Scatsta also closing at the end of June, it is a lot of jobs into the bargain. The thing is we cannot afford to see the hotel standing empty too long. It is not good for the hotel and not good for the community.”

Delting Community Council, of which Cooper is chairman, had also opposed the extension of the Sella Ness planning permission.

Vice-chairman Wayne Whitrow said: “I am pretty disappointed; the majority of the staff there are locals.”

“It was probably to be expected, unfortunately.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said that it was a “very worrying development”.

Another hospitality source who did not wish to be named said that these are “really desperate times” and “devastating for the north mainland.”

Meanwhile former hotelier Joe Rocks said that the hotel industry in 2010 wanted new build housing to accommodate Total’s workers beyond the SGP construction phase, rather than a purpose built 100 bedroom hotel.

Former Busta House owner Joe Rocks.
Former Busta House owner Joe Rocks.

Rocks added: “There may have been an element of protectionism involved in this thinking, but then endangered species are often deemed worthy of special intervention and assistance. Scalloway Hotel, Drumquin Guest House, The Brae Hotel, Herrislea House, The Queens Hotel, The Grand Hotel, The Moorfield Hotel…..and I’m fairly certain we’re not finished yet.

“Every penny spent at Sella Ness would, in times gone by, have been helping the ‘traditional’ providers to survive. Every oil penny thus spent now is circulating in a realm beyond Shetland’s reach.”

Rocks said that Covid-19 was an unavoidable tragedy to the industry, which could not operate in these circumstances, but at least it was not the result of poor decision making.

He added: “The Moorfield Hotel’s present desperate situation is not the result of this catastrophe, nor is The Scalloway Hotel’s liquidation. These are the visible economic impacts of the presence of the camp at Sella Ness beyond its sole raison d’etre, the construction of the Shetland Gas Plant, finished by 2016.

“I wish I could lay out a possible path through this bleak future. Historically, I’ve surfed through many troughs before. It’s ironic that there are many hotel rooms available for tourists this year, when, for eminently sensible reasons, there can be no leisure visitors. Next year, if Sella Ness remains, there may only be Sella Ness.”