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Housing / SIC director proposes construction industry meeting as local capacity affects house building

Photo © Colin Smith (cc-by-sa/2.0)

A SHORTAGE of construction workers is slowing the council’s progress in building new homes, according to the local authority’s development director.

Neil Grant told a meeting of Shetland Islands Council’s development committee on Monday that a joint meeting should be held in the coming weeks with the industry to look at ways forward.

Depute leader Gary Robinson asked if consideration had been given to house kits being built off Shetland and then being transported north.

“It’s one of a series of things I think we need to fully explore,” Grant responded.

“You could well argue that even taking in a construction force from outside of Shetland is something that we need to try to get our heads around…would that help?

“That capacity constraint in the construction industry is actually stopping us building housing at the moment.”

A lack of suitable housing in Shetland has been an issue for a number of years.

There are many reports on social media of people who are looking to move to Shetland for work and struggling to find a place to rent or buy.

Hundreds of new social housing units are set to be built at the Knab (SIC) and Staney Hill (Hjaltland Housing Association) in Lerwick, but no construction is yet underway.

And there have been some problems with getting jobs successfully tendered, such as infrastructure work on the Staney Hill development and demolition of the Knab site, while the cost of materials has significantly increased in the last couple of years.

The council’s latest strategic housing investment plan aims to build more than 370 affordable homes in the next five years, and a large chunk of these are the Knab and Staney Hill projects.

Grant told Monday’s meeting that the Promote Shetland service is looking to focus on the sector soon to encourage more folk into that line of work.

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Robinson suggested, though, that it was something of a Catch-22 situation. “We can’t appear to accelerate house building because we haven’t got the workforce to do the building, which in turn means we can’t get the skilled workforce into the islands.”

Grant said there was no single answer, but he raised the idea of the council and Hjaltland Housing Association meeting with local contractors.

“I think probably what we need to do in the coming weeks is to arrange a joint meeting with all the various construction industry businesses and agents and the likes of the council, Hjaltland housing and others,” he said.

“I think we need to get everybody in the room and talk through the issues and work out what can be done.”

But Lerwick South Cecil Smith felt that more needed to be done to inform local contractors of what the council’s housing plans are in the short-term, which would enable them to plan their workforce accordingly.

“I think we’re not being fair to the local contractors,” he said.

“As it is at the moment they’re hanging in balance wondering when the council is going to stop talking about building 350 houses and tell us when they’re going to start. I think that’s the main thing.”

Grant said that the total numbers of houses planned over the coming years has been given the approval by the Scottish Government.

But he said he understood Smith’s point about the local contractors not being able to plan ahead.

Meanwhile Shetland West member Liz Peterson agreed with Smith, encouraging the council to focus on planned house numbers per year rather than over five years, for instance.

“If [small local contractors] knew for example that in the next year the council was looking to build 50 houses, that might encourage them to try and take on more workers,” she said.

Committee chairman Dennis Leask also commented that in the current climate some contractors are tending to take on lower risk work.

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