Shetland Islands Council is facing a staffing crisis in its planning department just as it prepares for the biggest planning application in the authority’s history.
Headhunters are scanning the nation for a manager to run the department after the job has been vacant for more than year and two other posts remain unfilled.
Meanwhile the SIC is gearing itself up for the colossal workload expected to arrive with the bid to build the biggest wind farm in Britain, in Shetland’s central and north mainland.
SIC planning chief Iain McDiarmid has warned councillors that dealing with the application for more than 150 wind turbines is likely to take a whole year to process.
Meanwhile the post of development control manager which Mr McDiarmid vacated in August last year to become head of planning is still empty.
“This planning application is going to have a huge impact on the service. It’s going to be the biggest development proposal to hit Shetland ever,” Mr McDiarmid said.
New environmental regulations brought in during the past three decades mean the planning process will be far more involved than it was during the busy oil construction era of the 1970s which saw the building of Sullom Voe oil terminal and the expansion of Sumburgh airport.
Furthermore the council is anticipating an avalanche of opposition to the proposed 600 megawatt wind farm, similar to that experienced in the Western Isles and mainland Scotland.
“This development is going to generate a great deal of interest and there will be a lot of people for it and a lot of people against it, and every one of those people is entitled to make their representation,” Mr McDiarmid said.
“We will have to deal with the logistical problem of dealing with that level of interest as well as trying to address all their representations.”
The islands’ planners have been preparing the ground by visiting other places facing similar challenges and learning about the issues surrounding wind farm developments.
However at the same time the national shortage of trained planning staff is already creating problems for the authority. The problem has been exacerbated by the new Planning Act introduced in January this year, which has created the need for 100 new planners in Scotland.
Widespread advertising campaigns have failed to fill the development control manager’s post, so the council has appointed a recruitment consultant to look more intensively for the right person for the job.
The department is also short of two planning officials after one left last month shortly after completing their training.
“The more people leave the more pressure that creates and as we struggle to recruit that creates a downward spiral. We have recruited two new people but they don’t have a manager to give them the guidance they need,” the planning chief said.
SIC planning board chairman Frank Robertson estimated the planning process for the wind farm would take a whole year culminating in a “mini planning inquiry” which would be likely to last at least two days.
Under the Electricity Act the application would then be passed to Scottish Ministers to make the final decision on the plan.
Mr Robertson said that there was talk of prioritising planning applications during this period, but warned that this could create problems.
“The last time that the planning department and building control prioritised was with Sumburgh airport when there was a request to fast track the job, drop everything and concentrate on that. As you can imagine there was a backlash,” he said.
By Pete Bevington
5 October 2007
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