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A divisive plan to build a £1.3million community hub and motorhome park on playing fields in Port Ellen has been unanimously approved by councillors, after none of the 37 objectors turned up to the virtual hearing.
All eight councillors present at Argyll and Bute Council’s Planning, Protective Services, and Licensing Committee (PPSL) on Thursday March 24 voted in line with council officers to approve the plan, despite no letters of support from the public.
‘I’m disappointed none of the objectors have used their right to appear before this committee,’ said the PPSL chairman councillor David Kinniburgh. ‘I find that quite extraordinary, although I notice that a lot of the objections have come from off the island.’
Many objections had Port Ellen addresses, The Oban Times can confirm.
The applicant is South Islay Development (SID), a community-led organisation based in Ramsay Hall, set up in 2011 to ‘work with local people to make Port Ellen a better place to work, live and play’.
It owns and runs the community filling station and mobile home service point and, in 2017, took on Port Ellen’s 16-acre playing fields and pavilion.
Its keystone project, built up over ‘three years of extensive community consultation’, is regenerating the site into a new single-storey community hub where the demolished old pavilion stood, with a relocated play area, three spectator shelters, five storage containers for sports equipment and e-bike rental, plus 22 car parking spaces.
Most controversially, the plan increases motorhome parking from four hook-up spaces to 12, plus a toilet/shower/laundry block, waste disposal site and electric charge point beside the fuel station.
Towards the £1.3million cost, SID secured £746,233 from the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Capital Grant Fund, plus £250,000 from Glenmorangie Distillery and the North Highland Initiative. Argyll and Bute Council has just granted £50,000 to help plug the gap.
The Port Ellen Playing Fields project aims to address the ‘dire lack’ of facilities for Islay’s growing numbers of motorhomes, plus help solve its problems of nuisance parking, litter and dumped sewage, as well as generate revenue to sustain the whole 16-acre site.
Council officers had recommended the plan for approval, but the high number of objections triggered a local hearing set for March 24. Objectors argued it is an unwanted ‘profit-driven’ and ‘over-priced’ ‘vanity project’, dangerously located next to an, at times, unattended fuel station.
‘Skye has been ruined culturally and socially by encouraging tourism to the point of excess,’ summed up one: ‘Do not let that happen to Islay.’
‘The Playing Fields were left for the community of Port Ellen as an outdoor space, not a car park, motorhome and storage facility,’ said another, adding it should not be changed into ‘a commercial site primarily for tourism’.
The plan exposed a tension between the needs of islanders and tourists, and tested councillors on which side they sat, just weeks before May’s local election.
At the start of the hearing, Islay councillor Alastair Redman, Independent, Kintyre and the Islands, removed himself after declaring an interest. He said: ‘I have obviously been very busy canvassing my local ward. Elections are upon us. I have had many conversations about this matter with many of my constituents, some for, some against.
‘Such conversations may prejudice my decision, and I think, out of fairness to both the applicant and the objectors, I should declare an interest and take no further part in this meeting.’
After SID’s presentation, councillor Graham Archibald Hardie, Lib Dem, Helensburgh Central, asked: ‘You mentioned the seven hectares of open space, and the project is just under two hectares?’
‘The project itself is just 1.1 hectares, approximately,’ replied SID’s project manager Rosie MacLellan.
‘So there will be quite a lot of open space still left then will there?’ asked councillor Hardie.
‘Yes,’ answered Ms MacLellan.
SID’s director John Findlay said a number of organisations will want to use the new pavilion, given the village’s Columba Hall is ‘sadly falling into disrepair’. ‘It looks likely it may close,’ he said.
‘We want to encourage the youth to be involved in sport and have the facilities to be able to do that. We feel we are doing that. The motorhome site some people see as controversial. But we feel it is very important there is income generated. There is also going to be the rooms within the pavilion to let out which we see as a huge benefit to the community.’
Councillor Richard Trail, SNP, Helensburgh and Lomond South, said: ‘I am well impressed with the amount of work SID has done in the background. I think it is going to be a brilliant thing for Port Ellen. You’ve thought the thing through, raising the capital funding and considered long-term revenue. I will be very happy to support the application.’
Councillor Hardie agreed: ‘I think it is a great project. I’ve been reassured about the remaining open space. There seems to be a lot of positive community engagement and consultation. I have no hesitation but to approve the application.’
Councillor Jean Moffat, Independent, Bute, commented: ‘I am astounded that out of 37 complaints, not one person stood up to give their own viewpoint. Where this land is, you are not impinging on the privacy of any person’s house. How you get 37 people to complain about it is quite extraordinary. I would bite your hands off. I think it is an excellent project from start to finish. And I wish you all the best. I wish we had it.’
Councillor Roddy McCuish, Independent, Oban South and the Isles, added: ‘I took full cognizance of the 37 objectors, but I am absolutely amazed none of them want to come in front of the PPSL and put their case forward.
‘In all my years on the PPSL, I think this is one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. This is definitely progress. This will enhance the area that is there already, and this could be the catalyst for more projects from SID. So I have no hesitation in supporting this application.’
Councillor Rory Colville, Lib Dem, South Kintyre, said: ‘As a councillor of some 19 years experience, I am acutely aware more and more communities expect the council to do things, and the council just doesn’t have the money. The work you have done, I would bite your hand off for it. I think it is tremendous you are acting as a community. There is funding available. It will be a tremendous boost to the area. I am 100 per cent in support.’
Councillor Kieron Green, Independent, Oban North and Lorn, said: ‘I am fully behind this. I think it is a fantastic example of how a community can respond to the pressures of staycation, provide facilities for local people and I think it’s got a good future ahead of it. I am delighted to support it.’
Councillor George Freeman, Independent, Lomond North, said: ‘It is a simple, straightforward application. I am more than happy to see it approved.’
Councillor Kinniburgh, Conservative, Helensburgh and Lomond South, concluded: ‘Like my colleagues, I fully support this application. I think it is the way forward for communities and I was really impressed by the presentation.’