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Sport / External funding to be explored for synthetic pitch in Lerwick

Photo: Shetland Recreational Trust

FUNDING bids worth up to £850,000 will be submitted by Shetland Islands Council for an all-weather synthetic sports pitch in Lerwick that could accommodate football and rugby all year round.

A business justification case for the £1.2 million pitch at the north end of the Clickimin went in front of elected members at a special meeting of Shetland Islands Council (SIC) on Wednesday.

Potential external funding of £850,000 has already been identified, most of which is from the Scottish Football Association, with bids to be submitted by September.

If this came to pass the council would need to put in £350,000 itself, and there is currently no funding provision for this in the SIC’s current five-year asset investment plan.

Councillors were warned that the SIC remains in an unsustainable financial situation and is not in a position to take further unsustainable draws from its reserves.

But a further report due in the future on the project will discuss possible ways of meeting this £350,000 bill.

Members were reminded that the decision on Wednesday was not about giving the development the go-ahead, but only to progress with funding bids. The decision to give the pitch the green light would only come at a later date.

The motion which was passed at Wednesday’s meeting, from Lerwick North and Bressay councillor Gary Robinson, noted that using reserves on the project was a “last resort”.

He was also keen for the project to be cost neutral in terms of revenue and capital spend for the council, and that there be consultation with Clickimin Leisure Complex operator Shetland Recreational Trust.

His ward colleague Arwed Wenger, however, moved that the case was not progressed, highlighting concerns over finances and also staff workload.

When it came to a vote only Shetland Central’s Ian Scott supported Wenger.

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Sport and leisure services manager Neil Watt admitted the proposal for the pitch came somewhat from the “left field” because it stemmed from news that the Scottish Football Association could offer significant funding.

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison said the project “entirely hinges” on getting external funding.

Councillors were told that an all-weather 3G pitch at Clickimin North would also bolster the case for Shetland hosting a future Island Games.

A report to members said it is also “essential for continuation and development” of rugby and football in Shetland.

Watt did, however, say he would continue to engage with the local hockey club on its desire for a pitch in Lerwick.

But he said there has not been the external funding opportunity to push forward this idea.

The report to councillors said the current rugby pitch at the Clickimin is regularly waterlogged or frozen, leading to cancelled fixtures.

For football, the summer playing season has reduced over the last two decades as grass pitches find themselves waterlogged and unplayable later into April than they did previously.

There are two synthetic pitches in Shetland – one in Brae, primarily for hockey, and another in Whalsay suitable for football – but the council does not own one itself.

The report to councillors added: “Football currently has access to the 60/40 [indoor synthetic pitch at the Clickimin] during the winter months for training and small sided games.

“Although this is a good facility, it is always fully booked during the winter months which makes it difficult for football clubs to get the time they require.”

Writing on social media prior to the meeting, Shetland Football Association president George Smith – himself an ex-councillor – said it was an “ideal opportunity to invest in a facility that will bring huge benefits to many people in the coming years” – including girls’ and women’s football teams, and school pupils.

He added: “The recent Island Games shows the potential for Shetland to compete strongly against opposition from outwith the islands.

“With our season here being severely limited to playing on the grass from end of April to beginning of September it is not possible to participate in competitions on mainland Scotland on a regular basis without a suitable surface to play on, as football tends to be a winter game.

“If we want to grow the game here it is imperative that we have a 3G surface to play on. Only by being exposed to better quality teams will our most talented players be able to realise their full potential.”

While rugby and football would be key users, “further demand has been forecast for use of the 3G pitch by the wider community, which includes individuals, families, other sports clubs and organisations”, the report to councillors said.

When it comes to future Island Games, a 3G pitch suitable for football would be an “essential facility requirement” to host the competition.

The council agreed in 2018 to bid to host the Island Games after 2027, with the competition last held on home soil in 2005.

This decision will be reviewed again by the Council and Shetland Islands Games Association after the Tall Ships Races later this year or early 2024.

The business justification case raised four options, with the status quo one possible way forward.

A second option is installing a new drainage system for grass pitches at Clickimin North, at a cost of £300,000.

The other two options are a synthetic pitch, with varying degrees of facilities – such as changing rooms.

The preferred option is for a new pitch with flood lighting and fencing, as it is felt it is more achievable in terms of funding.

The potential income that could be generated from the 3G pitch is estimated at £88,698 for its first full year of operation, with expenditure potentially around £50,000.

Funding applications will be submitted to the Scottish Football Association (£600,000), sportscotland (£200,000) and the Scottish Rugby Union (£50,000).

An indicative timetable for the development says work could start on site in May next year – with the pitch open for use in September 2024.

Councillors were told that the lifespan of the new pitch could be ten years, and replacing the artificial turf could cost £300,000.

There was some concern from councillors over the optimistic nature of potential usage figures.

Meanwhile south councillor Allison Duncan highlighted how Shetland footballers used to compete against Orkney and Faroe in decades past.

He noted how Faroe now play full international football and have club teams in European competition.

Duncan said with Scottish Football Association funding limited by time, officers should work quickly to get bids in.

Lerwick North and Bressay member Stephen Leask said it would be “incredibly remiss” of the SIC to not explore the potential external funding.

But Ian Scott suggested that if the funding bids come back positively then councillors may feel there is no other option than to spend the extra £350,000 to get it over the line.

He used the example of how councillors previously rejected his plea to introduce free school meals for all pupils in Shetland.

While some councillors spoke up for the benefits the pitch could bring to young people, Scott said he believed that no youngsters would want to be out playing on a “freezing wet afternoon” in winter.

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