North councillors defy planners by approving plans to convert vacant office to church

Councillors defied their planning officials yesterday by unanimously approving proposals to convert a vacant office building into a church in a Caithness town.

Thurso Baptist Church needed to find new premises and, having explored a variety of options, the applicants submitted plans to move into James Traill House at Thurso Business Park.

Highland Council planners said it went against local area and Highland-wide policies which aim to safeguard the business park from being redeveloped for other uses.

Objectors said it would be “shortsighted” to convert a prime office unit to non-commercial use with a focus on diversification from Dounreay as it progresses with decommissioning.

And a report before councillors also said Highlands and Islands Enterprise had “expressed concerns” about the impact of a decline of business land on supporting existing businesses and attracting new investment to the area.

But the applicants said the building had been “underutilised” and that the church would bring it back into use as a place to promote social and community wellbeing. They also said precedent has been set with the former Sepa building at the site previously gaining planning permission to become a place of public worship.

And yesterday members of the North Planning Committee in Inverness went against the planner’s recommendation of refusal for the church proposal.

Wick and East Caithness councillor Raymond Bremner said the church could take on a dual use, with other parts of the building being let out for business, training or conference use in a similar way to Smithton Church on the outskirts of Inverness.

Mr Bremner added: “HIE is concerned about the lack of serviced business sites and the amount of available land. If we are saying there is concern about it, then why are these small business areas not being taken up? I think there are material considerations here which are trumping the policy.”

North, West and Central Sutherland councillor Kirsteen Currie said: “What I am worried about is that the building will fall into disrepair before all of these businesses magically spring up when Dounreay closes in 20 years time.”

Donnie Mackay, commitee vice chairman and Thurso and Northwest Caithness councillor, said James Traill House has been vacant for about a year, although two companies showed an interest in October last year.

Mr Mackay added: “I feel the loss of this office space would not be detrimental to the Thurso business community due to sufficient office space being readily available.”