Blame for any failure to fully use Scottish Government funding to build affordable Island homes will ‘lie squarely on the shoulders’ of the Comhairle and HHP, according to Isles MSP, Alasdair Allan.
In a forthright statement, the MSP detailed: “The Scottish Government are offering the Western Isles £25 million to build much-need affordable housing.
“This funding is the highest per capita of any local authority in Scotland and would represent the biggest investment in affordable housing here for at least a generation.
“The Housing Minister has made clear on repeated occasions now for a year and more about the conditions surrounding this funding – including at a meeting in Barra earlier this year.
“This money is only on offer until 2021, and I have expressed concerns before about the readiness of the Comhairle and its partners to take up this offer in time.
“However, I have to be straight about this – it would be wildly irresponsible of me to try to pretend that the rules of the scheme are likely to be changed at this late stage in the process.
“We need the Comhairle and HHP to identify land and sites as a matter of urgent priority.
“As councillors have remarked to me before, if this money is not fully utilised, then blame lies squarely on their shoulders.”
ADDITIONAL COSTS OF BUILDING IN THE ISLES
But the Comhairle has hit back at the MSP’s statements highlighting bureaucratic processes and the additional costs of building new homes in the islands – especially outside of Stornoway – and has called on Dr. Allan to join them in addressing the problems they claim to face.
A Comhairle’s spokesperson said: “The Comhairle would be happy to engage with our MSP to see how we can collectively maximise the affordable housing potential for the Outer Hebrides. The MSP surely has a duty to try and understand the challenges and to subsequently work with the Comhairle and HHP to maximise benefits for the Outer Hebrides.”
They continued: “The rules governing the funding require the Comhairle and our agent on the affordable housing programme, Hebridean Housing Partnership (HHP), to source credible land; to undertake a feasibility studies; to design a development; to achieve planning permission; to tender the development and subsequently make application to the Scottish Government for release of funds to an individual development. That process is laid down by the Government and requires time.
“The £25m funding has not been made available directly to the Comhairle – the Comhairle does not have this money. HHP are required to apply to the Government on each individual housing development.
“That is then subject to a period of technical assessment and negotiation before any funding is made available by Government.
“There is a Government benchmark figure for the amount of grant that can be allocated against each individual development.
“The Government has been flexible around that figure and has allocated higher levels of funding to most local developments.
“Discussion and negotiation between the Government and HHP around the level of Government investment takes time and slows down development.”
SEARCH FOR SUITABLE LAND FOR HOUSING
At the recent round of Comhairle committee meetings, concerns were raised by councillors that the Comhairle’s current policy favouring new-build spend outside of Stornoway is not being met.
The Comhairle has confirmed that local grazing committees have been contacted in a bid to increase the supply for suitable land for new homes.
The Comhairle’s spokesperson added: “The Comhairle could build quickly and expend the £25m allocation in and around Stornoway. However, we need to take account of all parts of the Hebrides – doing that requires time and higher levels of investment.
“If we are to make progress the Government has to take into account the cost of building in the Outer Hebrides. Government support above benchmark is welcome and very much appreciated, but the Government has to be willing to make a higher level of intervention available by default rather than engage in a protracted negotiation on each individual development.”
CHALLENGE OF TIMETABLE
Responding to the MSP’s statement, HHP’s Chief Executive, Dena MacLeod, said: “Our position from the outset has been to welcome the increased investment for affordable housing, whilst recognising the challenge of delivering the homes within the set timescale in a remote and rural area.
“Two of the greatest challenges we are facing in delivering the new homes are accessing suitable land in rural areas - we have had a number of parties offer us land which they have subsequently withdrawn; and managing the increasing cost of construction, the funding of which, has to be balanced with Scottish Government grant and keeping our rents at an affordable level.
“Despite these challenges we are doing everything possible, including employing additional staff to ensure the grant is fully drawn down to build homes.”
But for the Comhairle, the issue remains that the Scottish Government are not, in their opinion, sufficiently recognising all of the specific issues they face in building homes throughout the islands and to a deadline that may be achievable on the mainland, but is not under local circumstances.
The Comhairle’s spokesperson concluded: “It is also critical that the Government and the Comhairle work closely with HHP to understand why tender returns on individual projects are so high. If tenders remain at the present levels then it is difficult to see how the resource allocation can be fully expended.”
HHP figures confirm that there are currently 81 homes being constructed throughout the isles with a further 230 forecast for the next two years.