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Housing / Offsite construction mooted as way to up pace of house building

Hjaltland Housing Association's Grodians development in Lerwick. Photo: Hjaltland Housing Association

A SENIOR councillor has talked up the idea of modular construction – where units are pre-made on the mainland – to realise Shetland’s house building ambitions.

Depute leader Gary Robinson also questioned whether Shetland needs support from “big house builders from the mainland”.

It comes as members of Shetland Islands Council’s development committee were told there are continued constraints on local contractor capacity for housing projects.

Meanwhile questions were raised as to whether the council’s latest iteration of its Strategic Housing Investment Plan (SHIP) was too ambitious.

The plan covers the period between 2023/24 and 2027/28, and it looks to deliver 256 units of accommodation – many of which would be through Hjaltland Housing Association.

These units are largely in the forthcoming Staney Hill and Knab developments in Lerwick.

It seeks just under £20 million in funding from the Scottish Government.

Shetland South member Allison Duncan asked whether constraints in contractor capacity and rising costs mean the strategy is too ambitious.

But the council’s housing manager Anita Jamieson said there was a “need to be ambitious”.

“It is a five year, future looking programme, and I think we would hope the current set of constraints will have an end point, but we don’t know when that is,” she said.

“I think there’s a need for this programme to be quite flexible.”

Robinson’s suggestion of offsite construction seemed to get a relatively warm response from committee members.

Hjaltland Housing Association is a primary provider of social housing in Shetland and has a close collaboration with the council.

Speaking after the meeting the association’s chief executive Bryan Leask said: “We are always looking at new and innovative ways to develop homes and modular is no different.

“However, we are yet to find a cost-effective system that would be suitable for us and meet the current building regulations as well as the kit panels we are currently using.

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“In short we do not have any current plans to move away from our current designs, but we are always open to look at new ideas.”

Modular building, where rooms were pre-made before being shipped to Shetland, was used in the construction of the Moorfield Hotel in Brae and the previous Fair Isle Bird Observatory, for example. But Robinson said what is being spoken about for housing is “virtually identical” to conventionally built homes – “same standards and visually identical”.

At Tuesday’s meeting housing chief Jamieson said there is a need to look at innovative construction methods.

But she added: “I think we would want some reassurance around quality for things like modular construction, and there is a lot of work going on nationally around that, but it’s certainly stuff that needs to be explored.”

SIC depute leader Gary Robinson. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Robinson warned that he felt investing in housing in Shetland could be in effect an investment in the country’s economy, and suggested it makes a case for more funds coming the isles’ way.

The space sector, which has national interests, is coming to Shetland, for instance, while there are also plans for future energy projects.

“I think from an economic development point of view Shetland could be at risk of missing out on some significant projects if we’re not able to provide the level of housing and accommodation to support them,” Robinson said.

“I think that’s something that should be of concern to the government as well, because there’s no guarantee that if these projects don’t happen here, that they’ll happen in Scotland. The chances are they may go abroad.

“I think when it comes to economic development, we have the potential not only to bolster our own economy, but to make a significant contribution to the Scottish and UK economies as well, which in turn makes a financial contribution to the exchequer.

“So by investing in us I think we’re actually putting money back into the system ultimately, which I would argue makes the case for investment in housing in Shetland.”

Meanwhile Shetland West member Liz Peterson criticised the pace of a Hjaltland housing programme in Walls which was first due to get underway in 2020 but has not started construction.

“How can you expect us as elected members to have faith that we’re actually going to be able to deliver on this SHIP?” she said.

Development director Neil Grant said the Walls scheme had an issue with crofting, which was due to come to a resolution soon.

Hjaltland chief Leask said the four-house development was initially delayed for Covid reasons.

“We had hoped to make a start in 2022 but there were issues around the decrofting which has led to a further delay and a resubmission of the decrofting application,” he explained.

“All approvals and finances are in place for the project, and we are simply waiting on the decrofting to be approved by the Crofting Commission to allow the work to proceed.”

At Tuesday’s meeting Grant also stressed the importance of having a shadow programme – housing projects which could go ahead if another becomes stuck, to keep things moving.

However, members of the development committee were told that at the moment there is “little in the way of a shadow programme”.

The meeting also heard that news is expected in the coming weeks around the results of a £19 million tender for Hjaltland Housing Association’s proposed Staney Hill development.

It was the third time the contract, for main road and infrastructure works, had gone out to tender.

Committee chairman Dennis Leask also highlighted how the SHIP document is largely reliant on two large housing projects.

He suggested there could be “more flexibility and less complexity” in having more smaller projects.

This was backed up by North Isles member Robert Thomson, who said in his view “even with the best will in the world I don’t think the Knab is going to be significantly developed in the next ten years”.

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