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Council / New synthetic pitch draws discussion as business cases get airing in front of councillors

St Ringan's council chamber. Photo: SIC

SIX projects which will be considered for Shetland Islands Council’s asset investment plan for the next five years have gone in front of councillors – although one elected member attempted to put the brakes on a proposed new 3G synthetic pitch at the Clickimin.

North Isles member Robert Thomson had concerns about Shetland Islands Council potentially contributing £490,000 to the project and said there were already a couple of synthetic pitches available, including the one in Whalsay used for football.

But whilst he garnered some sympathy, he received no formal backing at Tuesday’s meeting of the SIC’s policy and resources committee.

The final decision on all six business justification cases lays with the full council, which meets on Thursday. If they are approved, the projects will then be prioritised to inform the proposed asset investment plan for 2024-29, which the council will be asked to approve on 27 March.

Other projects include greening the SIC’s vehicle fleet, the resurfacing of the Tingwall Airport runway and apron, a replacement fence at Gilbertson Park and new outdoor play equipment at schools.

The council’s assets manager Robert Sinclair opened Tuesday’s meeting by saying the business justification cases were “part of a process”.

“This is not a decision to implement, this is simply an opportunity for members to consider and agree that these are projects they wish to support,” he said.

A report to councillors said the proposals can only be included in the council’s approved asset investment plan for 2024-29 if funding can be identified.

It added that most of the projects “can only proceed if projects of the same value are delayed or removed” from the current asset investment plan, or an additional draw is made on reserves.

It added that the council is not currently in a position to make a further unsustainable draw on reserves.

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The most expensive project on the list is to green the SIC’s fleet of vehicles.

There is an estimated additional cost of electric vehicles up to 2030 which estimated at £1.3 million, and extra charging infrastructure is estimated at nearly £2 million.

To help meet targets the aim is to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and phase out the need for petrol and diesel versions of all other vehicles from 2040.

Meanwhile the resurfacing work at Tingwall Airport could cost £1.4 million over three years. This would be fully funded by “reduction in the roads reconstruction budget” so no additional spend is required.

The report said this work would enable the airport to continue to meet the requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority.

Also included is a business justification case for a rolling active travel programme, which should make the process of spending external funding on active travel projects smoother.

An annual £100,000 spend for five years is proposed for a programme of outdoor learning and play projects across Shetland’s school estate.

Meanwhile the cost of the preferred way forward for the replacing and upgrading the fence between Gilbertson Park and St Sunniva Street in Lerwick, which is in poor condition, has been priced at £107,000.

But it was the project for a new council-owned synthetic pitch at the north end of the Clickimin which sparked the most debate.

The 3G pitch would support year-round activity in sports like football and rugby and it is said it would boost the development of the sports in Shetland given that grass pitches – particularly the Clickimin’s rugby one which would be replaced by the synthetic surface – are often affected by the elements.

With more than half of the £1.2 million cost in line to be covered by external funding, the SIC would have to pay nearly £500,000. The Scottish Football Association is offering half a million, with the funding requiring the project to be completed by June 2025, and sportscotland has put forward £150,000.

But there is expected to be an operating surplus at a new pitch every year through bookings.

Some councillors were enthusiastic about the project – particularly due to significant levels of external funding on offer – and were happy to see it move to the next stage.

But Thomson – once briefly a football referee himself – expressed worry over the financial impact to the council and called for an “early exit” from the project.

“We have a responsibility to Shetland to try and look after the money that we’re entrusted with,” he said. “We cannot just keep saying yes to everything.”

However, he did not receive a seconder and councillors agreed to take the project to the next stage. No final decision to go ahead with it has been made, as that will come at a later stage.

Sports and leisure manager Neil Watt had earlier suggested there could be reputational risk to the council for future projects if it rejected the funding awards.

Meanwhile Thomson and Shetland Central councillor Moraig Lyall questioned why the local football scene is not offering money towards the project.

This is because Shetland rugby club is putting forward £10,000 as match funding towards a possible grant of £50,000 from the Scottish Rugby Union.

Another business case which prompted discussion at Tuesday’s meeting was for greening the council’s vehicle fleet.

With the SIC aiming for a 2030 target Thomson asked about the prospect of postponing the project for five years.

However, environment and estate operations manager Carl Symons was firm in his view that deferring the project could have longer term cost implications due to how vehicle supply is changing.

All other projects were backed with little fuss, with councillors for instance told there was little option other than to press ahead with the Tingwall Airport resurfacing as otherwise its licence to operate could be lost.

Shetland Central member Davie Sandison had remarked that the spend on maintaining the surface between 2012 and 2022 – which varied between £900 in 2020/21 at the height of the Covid pandemic to £22,600 in 2013/14 was “paltry” given that the airport is an asset councillors previously had voted to keep.

Members of the policy and resources committee agreed to recommend that the full council approves the proposals, subject to affordability and the availability of funding being resolved as part of the budget setting process for 2024/25.

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