Drive for rural housing now under fresh threat

Achieving a 55-45 per cent split in favour of building “affordable housing” in parts of the Western Isles other than Stornoway is under fresh threat because it makes “maximising the drawdown of funding problematic”.

While there is demonstrable demand for housing in and around Stornoway, such as in Laxdale and Newmarket, providing more housing in the rural parts could help stem depopulation there.
While there is demonstrable demand for housing in and around Stornoway, such as in Laxdale and Newmarket, providing more housing in the rural parts could help stem depopulation there.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has agreed to reconsider the policy at a special meeting in August where there is likely to be strong resistance to a change of priorities even if it means losing Scottish Government funding.

The chairman of the Comhairle’s Sustainable Development Committee, Donald Crichton, told the Gazette: “We want to resist this. The whole system needs reviewed to create flexibility about how to provide housing in the islands.

“The biggest problem we face is depopulation in rural areas and we need flexibility around housing to address that. We want to meet with the Scottish Government to explain the circumstances which need flexible approaches”. He said these had been discussed before but “never seem to go anywhere”.

A report from officials argued strongly for “a temporary amendment” to the “split”. Otherwise, it claimed, there would be difficulty in the Hebridean Housing Partnership spending its capital allocation from the Scottish Government (jargonised as Resource Planning Assumptions or RPA).

“Land supply in rural areas”, argued the report, “remains extremely challenging and if the spilt is maintained then further effort will be required with community landlords and grazings committees.

“On the other hand there are growing concerns being expressed by the Scottish Government and HHP that maintaining the split will result in a less than optimal use of the RPA and that a proportion of the RPA allocation will be lost.

“There is significant housing pressure and demonstrable demand in and around Stornoway which may go unsatisfied if the 45/55 per cent split is maintained resulting in the potential of greater homelessness. Given that there is a strong pipeline of projects in and around Stornoway, development in the locality would ensure maximisation of RPA”.

The policy was adopted in 2017 in the face of population decline in rural parts of the islands. However, critics have argued that the Scottish Government’s criteria have never fully recognised additional costs or allowed flexibility about how to support housing in crofting areas.

The latest report states: “The Comhairle and HHP work closely together to deliver the Affordable Housing Programme as set out in the Strategic Housing Investment Plan (SHIP), which maps out the higher level, strategic vision of where the Comhairle would like to see new housing built. The SHIP covers a five-year period”.

While the RPA and unit cost allowed for each house have increased, says the report, “it has been challenging to maximise the spend and this will be particularly challenging for the current RPA period up until 2026/27 due to issues such as contractor capacity and land availability.”

The report continues: “It does take longer to develop a rural site due to issues such as identifying suitable land, de-crofting and higher costs requiring additional scrutiny”. However, it also acknowledges that there are “clear policy benefits” in maintaining the 45-55 split by “providing a clear signal” about commitment to rural parts of the islands.