No single answer for rural housing

Greater diversity of housing opportunities are required if families are to be retained in rural parts of the Western Isles, the Comhairle leader, Roddie MacKay, said this week.

By Brian Wilson
Monday, 12th July 2021, 5:35 pm
The housing needs of rural areas needs a diverse approach
The housing needs of rural areas needs a diverse approach

As reported in last week’s Gazette, there were almost 400 people on the Hebridean Housing Partnership waiting list in March with 56 per cent of them looking for houses in the Stornoway area.

However, Mr MacKay said the Comhairle would maintain a commitment to building in rural parts of the islands over the next two or three years. HHP’s major housing investments have hitherto been in the Stornoway area, contributing to the centralisation of population.

Since 2017, 192 “affordable houses” built or under construction have been in Stornoway and 95 elsewhere in the islands. The council say this is “heavily skewed by the Goathill Farm development which was approved in order to meet the strategic requirement of Care Home reprovisioning”.

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The official “aspirational target” is still to have a 55 per cent Stornoway/45 per cent rural split.

However, the council leader said that other mechanisms beyond social housing had to be looked at for retaining population elsewhere in the islands and if necessary, legislation should be considered to create the necessary mechanisms.

“For starters, however,” he said, “we would urge the government to look again at the Crofter Housing Grant scheme to bring it into line with current market values”.

Once the mainstay of croft housing in the islands, with both grant and loan elements, the scheme is now grant only and the average grant of £35,000 comes nowhere near meeting actual costs. Only 59 awards were made across the entire crofting counties last year.

Mr MacKay said that the Scottish Government should look again at whether legislation was required to help get empty houses back into use. He said that the council has a “very active” empty homes officer and that the temporary post has now been extended.

During the Holyrood election campaign, the SNP promised an “Islands bond” scheme which would help 100 young people and families with up to £50,000 to stay in or move to islands to buy homes, start businesses and settle for the long-term.

They said that it would be targeted at islands facing depopulation – there are 93 inhabited islands in Scotland – but no details of how it will work in practice have yet emerged. Mr MacKay said it was something they would be interested in pursuing but the council has been told that it will not commence until next year.

The latest HHP figures showed there are 392 names on the waiting list, excluding suspended and deferred applicants. That represents a 4.2 per cent drop on the same time last year.

New applications have continued to fall with 362 in 2020-21, a decrease of 18 per cent from the previous year. Single people represent more than half those looking for homes who are on the current waiting list.

Units currently in the HHP “pipeline” include six at Cleit, Barra; eight in Lochmaddy; two in Keose and eight in Barvas.