One of the keystones in building a better future for the Western Isles is retaining young people and attracting young families to live in the region.
A vital building block in achieving that aim is more affordable housing - that call has been broadcast loud and clear by different people and organisations across the Islands for a number of years.
In 2017 the Scottish Government listened to that call for new homes and handed Western Isles Council an investment commitment of £25m in an effort to deliver more affordable accommodation for Islanders.
The 25m was to be released over three years in separate tranches.
In 2018-19 there is £7.533 million on the table for housing projects, this will rise to £8.522 million in 2019-20 and £9.092 million in 2020-21.
With such a firm promise in place the chance to deliver these much needed homes for Islanders should have got off to a flying start.
However, the plan to deliver these homes seems to have merely meandered along.
Only this week (week 29 of 2018) were the Council able to announce the first build projects for the 2018/19 housing programme.
In a statement the local authority said the programme - in partnership with the Hebridean Housing Partnership (HHP) - had just recently been approved.
NEW AFFORDABLE HOMES IN HARRIS
They went on to describe that eight new flats for rent and four new Shared Equity houses (for first time buyers) will be built in Harris.
The first housing development - a block of eight two-bedroomed flats - will be built on the site of the former Police Station in Tarbert.
This project is expected to get out of the ground late August, or early September and should be ready for tenants by the end of next June.
The second project is in Horgabost, near the recent HHP development at Pairc Nisabost.
This will create four new houses for sale.
These houses will be offered in a Shared Equity Scheme, where the new owners can buy a share of the property (for example 60%) and the Scottish Government retains the balance.
The homeowner can increase their ownership share as their circumstances improve and if the homeowner wants to sell the property, they would receive a percentage of the selling price based on the share they own.
This type of scheme makes it far easier for first time buyers to get a foot on the property ladder and has already proven successful in Stornoway, with 80 such properties built in recent years.
In conclusion the statement detailed that more feasibility studies were underway for build projects and these would “help inform the Affordable Housing programme for the next financial year”.
FUNDING COULD CREATE 90 NEW HOMES IN 2018/19
The two Harris projects together are expected to cost £1m to build, but given that £7.533m is in the pot for housing in 2018/19, where are the other projects for this timeframe?
As a guesstimate - based on the expected cost of the 12 Harris properties - then £7.553m should create at least 90 properties in total.
How many new affordable properties can Islanders expect to gain in 2018/19, in particular, and in total during this three-year window of largesse by the Scottish Government? What happens to the money when time runs out on the 2018/19 timeframe?
These are some of the questions the Gazette put to the Comhairle this week, as concerns are rising that with the first half of 2018 gone, there is a serious danger that Islanders could lose out on a hearty slice of the £7.533m funding cake, due to snail-like decisions in getting build projects out of the ground.
NOT ENOUGH PLANNING APPLICATIONS
The Gazette also asked Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan about his thoughts on funding for housing locally, he told us: “The Scottish Government has made £25 million available to the Western Isles for affordable housing over the course of the next three financial years.
“This is easily the highest per capita amount on offer to any council in Scotland.
“It has the potential to be truly transformative to the islands and significantly reduce the housing waiting list.
“However, the council need to identify more suitable land for affordable housing and we have not seen nearly enough planning permission applications go in.
“What we need now is a sense of urgency if this funding is to be fully utilised.”
At the time of publication the Council was unable to provide any more information in regards to new affordable homes being built in the Islands, or give any further clarification about the 2018/19 funding for these homes.