Is the Scottish Government offering the best support to help stem the Islands’ population drain?
That question was put front and centre this week following a call for a comprehensive funding review of how rural housing is funded and delivered for the islands.
Councillor Donald Crichton, Chairman of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Joint Consultative Committee on Crofting, has called for joined-up thinking from Ministers to tackle depopulation and utilise croft land to encourage young people to live and work in rural communities.
His comments come following the release of Scottish Government statistics that show only 18 new houses were built in the Outer Hebrides last year through the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme.
In the scheme people can apply for grants - up to 40% of the costs and a maximum of £38,000 - to rebuild or for improvements to older croft houses.
Grants available to build new croft houses are £38,000 in high priority areas and £28,000 in standard priority areas.
The Western Isles is considered a high priority and the region takes up about 50% of the scheme’s overall budget.
The funding levels for the scheme have changed since its inception. In 2008 statistics show 35 new houses being built and seven house improvements in the Isles, costing £1,077,289. However since then individuals can access more grant aid up from £22,000 to £38,000.
CAMPAIGNING FOR SCHEME TO BE STRENGTHENED
The Comhairle has campaigned for the scheme to strengthened as the local authority believes the best way to support rural and Island communities is to provide people with the opportunity to live and work in their crofting villages. It is thought this approach will tackle depopulation and result in sustainable communities.
In regards to improvements to the scheme the Comhairle believe that better levels of funding will help more people to build their own homes and that the loan element of the scheme should be reinstated to provide additional assistance.
Following a meeting of the Joint Consultative Committee on Crofting, Cllr Crichton said: “The 18 new homes built under the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme in the past year are obviously welcome. It is disappointing, however, that the total budget for croft house building has diminished to such a level that only 18 houses were built in one of the main crofting areas.
“Building new homes through the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme is one of the most effective and efficient ways to build new homes in areas such as the Outer Hebrides.
“I believe it is critical that the scheme is considered more broadly and becomes more integrated into the Local Housing Strategy.”
He continued: “The Outer Hebrides presently have an unprecedented level of funding being invested through the Affordable Housing Programme, but the linkages between that Programme and the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme appear limited.
“The two investment funds are in their own silos and there is little joined-up thinking as to how they could work together to maximise opportunities.
“There needs to be an overarching strategy to address the islands’ housing needs, including crofter housing. We have a local housing strategy and the national housing programme that is investing millions in housing across the islands. But at the same time the availability of land is a problem. Linking the strategies and funding streams with the crofter housing element would address the issues of land availability and open up funding packages for people to apply for.”
MAKING CROFTING TENANCY MORE ACCESSIBLE
Further study into how crofting tenure could be made more accessible and affordable for people to become tenants of crofts and be able to access grants is an area Mr Crichton suggests that the Crofting Stakeholder Forum and the Crofting Bill Steering Group could tackle.
He added: “Under the present Affordable Housing Programme, monies have to be streamed through a registered social landlord - Hebridean Housing Partnership - who must source and buy land and build multiple houses in each development in order to achieve economies of scale to meet Government investment benchmarks. These processes can take time and can be expensive.
“A lot of individuals and families also aspire to live on their own croft within a township settlement pattern.
“Having budget flexibility between crofter and affordable housing funds could therefore help build more homes more quickly and in a style that suits the needs of each individual family.
“We appreciate that there is presently a separation between the two funds and that they are administered for two specific purposes.”
Mr Crichton, continued: “I believe there is a need for a comprehensive funding review that links local housing strategies with the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme as well as the Affordable Housing Programme.
“As the Scottish Government looks to design future housing investment programmes I would urge them to consider these linkages to meet the demand for land and provide the best funding to address housing needs for communities and young people in particular.
“This was highlighted by the Leader and Convener at a recent meeting with the Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart and I understand the Minister would welcome more dialogue on how this could be achieved.
“I will write to the Scottish Government and seek further discussions on this issue.”
GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT IN HOUSING
Talking about housing investment in the Islands, Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan, highlighted: “Since 2007, the Scottish Government has invested more than £19 million to help build or improve over 930 croft houses - approximately half of which have been in the Western Isles.
“The maximum grant available has been increased from £22,000 to £38,000.
“I am supportive of the changes which saw the scheme redesigned to target support to those who most need assistance, such as younger and lower-income crofters.
“One past cause for complaint was the restrictions on the internal floors-size limits per room and I was pleased when the Scottish Government – following lobbying from Angus MacNeil MP and myself - removed these limits to introduce a further degree of flexibility.
“I know that, in the past, the government has been asked whether the money allocated to the Comhairle for affordable rented housing could be used for self-build projects.
“This was something I engaged directly with the Housing Minister on at the time, but this money has for some time now been allocated for social rented housing, and the challenge is to make sure that this money gets spent.
“I know that the minister’s door is always open to proposals however, and I look forward to seeing further detail of what the Comhairle is putting forward.”