MINISTER VISITS UIST AMID DEPOPULATION AND HOUSING CONCERNS
Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees, Emma Roddick, visited Uist in October prior to the release of the new Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan and her own constituent engagement survey.
Kareen MacRury, Uist Settlement Officer, organised a short programme of meetings for the minister including discussing her own work in helping people to move to the islands.
The housing theme carried over to a visit to the Tagsa Uibhist Community Gardens to discuss the recent Our Right to Food report as well as other population related concerns from Tagsa. Tagsa Uibhist CEO, Chris MacLullich, said: “We spoke about the usual challenges: housing, workforce, etc. She also said that there is a fund to convert unused housing to create new housing but this is for local authorities and there doesn’t seem to be any housing stock available for this here.”
Ms Roddick said: “The lack of affordable housing is a key factor driving depopulation. Public services and local businesses are being impacted due to a lack of staff, young people are moving out of their hometowns and taking jobs elsewhere, and ageing populations left behind are struggling to find care and support locally.”
The 2022 Scotland Census shows a 5.6% decrease in population from the previous census in 2011, the biggest percentage decrease in Scotland, and a 2020 report from the Highlands and Islands convention predicts a population loss of 14% between 2016 and 2041.
On 13 October, Housing Minister Paul MacLennan released the new Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan, which sets out how the remote, rural and islands communities of Scotland could benefit from the ScotGov Housing to 2040 plan. The plan sets out to build 110,000 homes across Scotland by 2032 with 10% in remote, rural and island communities.
The scheme takes its definition of ‘remote, rural and island communities’ from Scottish Government’s Urban Rural Classification 2020 guidelines, which describes ‘remote’ as those areas more than a 30 minute drive time of a settlement with a population of 10,000 or more.
Ms Roddick welcomed the plan saying: “The sustainability of our rural and island communities is vital to Scotland’s future, but we are currently seeing significant depopulation and rising house prices in many of these areas. That is why this action plan is so important for sustaining these communities. Providing affordable housing will help protect our rural and island communities, letting people stay where they want to live and continue to thrive.”
There is also a plan to introduce legislation enabling councils to charge a 100% premium on council tax for second homes. In Uist, 169 homes were registered as ‘secondary letting’ under the new Short Term Let regulation.
In the meeting with the minister, Ms MacRury set out the work being delivered under the Uist Repopulation Zone Action Plan, which included liaising with the Uist and Barra Housing Group project and Rural Housing Scotland to address housing concerns. This work will now be taken forward by Christina Morrison, who has taken on the role of Settlement Officer.
The complex issues underpinning Uist’s affordable housing shortfall
The Comhairle is debating how to maximise the value of £16m of as yet unspent Scottish Government affordable housing funds.
The Government’s allocation for the Western Isles for the five-year period up until 2026/27 is £42m, allocated at around £8.5m per year. The Comhairle’s current housing programme plans for a further 100 new houses up to 2026/27, accounting for £26m of that £42m fund, and leaving a balance of around £16m not yet allocated.
Current commitments require the Comhairle to site 55% of all new builds outside of Stornoway to support population growth and retention in the most fragile rural communities, but increased building costs in rural areas has meant that this commitment is now in question.
At a meeting of the Sustainable Development Committee in June, elected members were asked to consider whether to step back from the 55% commitment to ensure the remaining £16m can be fully utilised. The decision was put on hold pending further discussion at an Affordable Homes Seminar for elected members, due to be held this month.
The Government funding is tied into a set of benchmark unit costs, which for Island areas, is currently set at £95k per unit, well below average unit build costs in the Western Isles.
Neither the Comhairle or Hebridean Housing Partnership (HHP) were able to confirm current average unit costs, but both agreed that the Uist figure is well above the Government’s agreed £95k budget.
HHP states that additional freight costs mean island prices have historically been 20-25% higher than on the mainland, and this increases the further you travel from Stornoway. This geographical disadvantage is exacerbated by significant inflation over the last few years, which has led to price increases of around 50% over the last 10 years.
The situation is sorely felt by local contractors. Iain MacInnes, Project Manager at MacInnes Bros Ltd, explains: “The cost increases start before a brick is even laid. Virgin sites just need more preparatory work – access roads, peat clearance, land drainage, independent sewer networks – theses are all costs you wouldn’t need to consider in an urban construction project. Then there is the logistics of managing freight through a sometimes unreliable ferry service. The cost of fuel is an issue – our lorries carrying full load manage about seven miles to the gallon – that’s a lot of fuel to get the materials we need on site. The UK Government changed the rules on the use of red diesel within construction in April of this year, and we are no longer able to use the cheaper fuel alternatives for our work. That decision has cost MIB an additional £20k per month to operate essential construction plant at just our Lochmaddy development site alone. There are additional costs, and additional risks and the contractor is often the one who carries that. It can end up with some projects not being commercially viable.”
Iain is clear that the burden should not hold back development: “Building in rural settings is more difficult and more costly, there’s no denying that, but the value of these projects has to be considered in a wider sense. The cost of a rural build needs to be seen against the wider value it adds to the community and smaller settlements across Uist: the jobs it helps retain, the population it helps to stabilise, the school rolls it helps maintain.”
Rural developments also face additional hurdles in finding suitable land, it can take up to two years and cost as much as £5,000 to free up croft land for development.
MSP Rhoda Grant told Am Paipear: “While it’s their responsibility to ensure adequate good quality housing, the Council and HHP are being placed in a really difficult position. The requirements for Government funding mean that they already exceed their per unit house budget within Stornoway, and by the time they look at building in Barra those prices have tripled. It’s a natural deterrent for island authorities to build in more rural areas as they desperately try to maximise the return for the paltry budgets they’ve been allocated.”
MSP Alasdair Allan believes the issue is directly impacting local communities: “The shortage of affordable housing in Uist is having considerable social and economic impacts. A limited or expensive housing market means that it is harder for islanders to access suitable properties on the open market, making it more likely that they live in accommodation which does not match their needs. As a result, younger people and families may be pushed out of island areas like Uist where they are sorely needed.”
Dena Macloed, Chief Executive of HHP has stated that delivering the housing programme within budget is becoming more difficult: “HHP’s vision is to provide good quality and affordable homes: that vision is challenging to deliver at the best of times but our current economic climate is making it much harder. The cost of living increases are impacting on every aspect of our work so we are able to do much less with the money we have available from rental income.”
“Developments of new homes would not be possible without the grant we received through the Scottish Government’s Affordable Housing Programme but even with the grant, the finance we are required to commit to each new development has increased substantially.”
Despite the issues, rural development does go ahead. HHP has recently delivered new housing developments in Garrynamonie, Howmore and Balivanich, and has a further 12 homes planned for this financial year, and a further 16 by 2026.
Matching housing stock to local need requires a flexible approach, says Donna Young, Smart Clachan Development Officer at Rural Housing Scotland in Balivanich: “We believe that affordable homes come in all shapes and sizes. Our Smart Clachan development at Rubha Bhuailt in Lochboisdale incorporates energy efficient homes alongside shared amenities, such as a workspaces and poly crubs. The eight houses in the development will be available to purchase through shared equity, with islanders given priority. The project has only just been submitted for planning permission but we have already had notes of interest from 14 people, some of whom are current HHP residents.”
Partnership launched to tackle empty homes
Tighean Innse Gall (TIG) and the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) have launched a joint project to tackle the issue of empty homes, working closely with the Comhairle to purchase and refurbish empty homes for social rent, mid-market rent, and rent-to-buy.
A minimum of twelve homes will be brought back into use over the course of the two-year project, making them more attractive to people who wish to remain on the island and also attracting new families to re-locate to the islands.
Donna Smith, Chief Executive Officer, TIG, said: “We are truly excited about the difference this partnership could make in terms of tackling the problem of empty homes in the Outer Hebrides. Our project will build on the fantastic empty homes work undertaken by the Council in the last few years and we will work with the local Empty Homes Officer to ensure the partnership is a success.”
The Western Isles has one of the highest rates of vacant dwellings anywhere is Scotland at 8.1%, against a national average of 3.4%, The islands also have the second highest percentage of long term empty properties, the second highest percentage of second homes and the highest proportion of unoccupied council tax exemptions. Scottish Government estimates there are 596 properties that have been empty for six months or more, 462 of which have been empty for more than a year.
Short Term Lets Licence and fees for tourism businesses set out by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
Legislation introduced by Scottish Government at the start of the year will require those renting out accommodation for short term lets to register their business with their Local Authority.
The legislation covers both those who rent out separate properties, and those who rent out part of their own home, so will cover traditional self catering as well as guest houses and B&Bs.
The Comhairle must have its new licensing scheme established by October of this year, and hosts will have until April 2023 to apply for a licence. The Comhairle must consider an application for a short term let licence within a period of six months of receiving the application, and determine the licence within 12 months.
Any short-term let licence granted by the Comhairle will be subject to mandatory conditions, which primarily cover safety, including overcrowding.
The Comhairle has been granted powers to charge fees for licence applications and monitoring, and to limit the number of accommodation lets operating in designated areas. The draft documents pertaining to the scheme set out a preferred ‘light touch approach, which will be reflected in lower licensing fees’. The draft fee scale ranges from £66 to £133 per annum, depending on the type of property and the number of guests.
Designated control zones have not been introduced at this stage, but the Comhairle has not ruled out that option, stating it will utilise the licensing scheme information to set baseline data to help identify and monitor any problem areas if considering future control zones.
The Comhairle estimates there are between 770 and 950 short term lets operating in the Western Isles, made up of 700 to 800 secondary letting premises and 70 to 100 B&Bs and guest houses, but recognises that the numbers may be higher than the available data suggests.
Outer Hebrides Tourism last ran a full visitor survey before the pandemic, when annual visitor numbers stood at 219,000, with an estimated £65m coming into the Western Isles, a quarter of which relates to Uist. The current total income is now expected to be well over £70million.
A Comhairle spokesperson said “Short-term lets are an important part of the tourism sector as well as providing vital accommodation for workers coming to the islands.”
The new Scheme has not gone down well with Tourism bodies. Sarah Maclean, CEO of Outer Hebrides Tourism, shared her concerns with Am Pàipear: “We are aware of the problems caused by unregulated lets in some mainland areas but we’re very clear that Short Term Lets Licensing is not right for the islands. Scottish Government is using a sledgehammer to break a nut. But with the legislation now in place we are focused on supporting our members to navigate its roll-out as best we can.”
Ms Maclean continued: “Tourism accounts for 10-15% of all economic activity on the islands and the proportion is higher in rural areas like Uist, where there are hundreds of small businesses relying on the additional income that short term lets bring. We recognise there are infrastructure issues but we believe this is not the way to resolve them.”
The Comhairle public consultation on the short term lets issue generated 230 responses, 70% of whom were host operators. Feedback is still being collated but the published comments included a wide range of views.
Rural Housing Scotland working on housing solution with Stòras Uibhist
Iain Stephen Morrison
Rural Housing Scotland is to lead on an ambitious new initiative to tackle the interlinked issues of depopulation, demographic change and the climate crisis through the establishment of innovative housing developments named ‘Smart Clachan’.
Smart Clachan are described as a modern interpretation of traditional island townships, consisting of a few houses and crofts, utilising community-led, cooperative housing models to create modern, affordable homes. Next to the houses there would be shared services and facilities, such as a community work hub, to enable householders to establish their own businesses or work remotely for local, national and international companies.
Rural Housing Scotland is working alongside community landowner Stòras Uibhist, which is providing sites for the development of ‘Smart Clachan’ on South Uist.
‘Smart Clachan’ are proposed for several locations and, if realised, could support repopulation through the provision of homes and workspaces that are affordable, cooperative, interconnected, sustainable and low carbon.
Young people have raised serious concerns about access to housing, in particular since the onset of the pandemic, warning there is a risk of an “economic clearance” from island communities as demand for houses increased in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Interest in island properties has apparently soared in recent times, giving rise to the view that young people who live in the region are being outbid for houses and that an increase in the number of second homes is imminent, with a negative impact on efforts to retain population in areas like the Outer Hebrides.
Rural housing Scotland aims to address this situation and, with funding secured from the Emsée Fairbairn foundation, working in partnership with Stòras Uibhist, will recruit a project manager to lead the delivery of ‘Smart Clachan’.
Darren Taylor, chief executive of Stòras Uibhist, commented: “We are delighted to be working in partnership with Rural Housing Scotland. We are committed to playing our part in housing development and are encouraged by recent progress regarding the site at Rubha Bhuailt through the Scottish Government ‘Islands Housing Fund’. We continue to work hard to progress these complex projects to ensure the right outcome for the community.”
Derek Logie, chief executive of Rural Housing Scotland, added: “We are incredibly thrilled to be able to announce the support for Smart Clachan from Esmee Fairbairn. This builds on work funded by the Scottish Government to develop the initiative and we look forward to work starting on site to build this innovative project next year.”
“The grant will pay to employ an island-based project manager who will pull together the funding streams required to build the Smart Clachan. Stòras Uibhist has been invited to apply to the Scottish Government ‘Islands Housing Fund’ for a grant to build affordable housing and are investigating construction options, including modular housing developed by Modular West based on Barra.”
Work has started on the construction of fourteen new houses on Benbecula and South Uist
Iain Stephen Morrison
Fourteen new homes are now under construction, with ten to be built on Benbecula and a further four on South Uist.
Hebridean Housing Partnership said the development in Balivanich will include two one-bedroom houses, four two-bedroom properties and four houses with three bedrooms, while there will be two three-bedroom and two two-bedroom homes constructed at Howmore.
Calmax Construction Ltd is the contractor working on the Balivanich development, which is expected to be completed in early 2022, while MacInnes Bros Ltd is building the four new homes at Howmore, which are expected to be ready for tenants later in 2021.
Last year Hebridean Housing Partnership invited suggestions for names for the Balivanich development and settled on Johnstone Court, after the late Donald John Johnstone, a well known character from Benbecula.
Iain Macmillan, chairman of Hebridean Housing Partnership, commented: “Both the ten houses at Johnstone Court and four houses at Howmore, along with recent developments at Torlum and Garrynamonie, are part of the Hebridean Housing Partnership commitment to the delivery of the Strategic Housing Investment Plan, developed and agreed by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and delivered in partnership with Hebridean Housing Partnership and Scottish Government.
“We recognise that the provision of social housing is one way of providing the homes required to ensure the sustainability of the islands and are happy to work with local and national partners to deliver what is needed.”
Mr MacMillan added that a further eight homes, currently in the planning process, are to be built in Lochmaddy.