Halting the exodus: How a community-led housing movement is taking rural repopulation into its own hands

Ben Wray

Andrew Prendergast, freelance housing activist in Skye, and Shaz Morton, Common Weal Skye co-ordinator, outline the acute housing crisis in rural Scotland and how recent events in Skye have shown a community-led housing movement is developing in the Highlands with innovative solutions to do something about it

WITH the housing crisis making national headlines every week, some communities in the remoter parts of the country are finding ways to tackle their own crisis of affordability – one that has been gathering pace for over 20 years, and which many fear is driving a new wave of exodus from rural Scotland.

The lack of affordable housing in rural Scotland is sadly nothing new – for over 20 years local housing associations have been trying to address the combined effect of low incomes and high building costs. In recent years the attractiveness of the Highlands & Islands as a retirement and downsizing destination, along with improved transport and communications, has contributed to an unprecedented surge in property prices in some parts of the region. Exemplifying this trend more than most is Skye and Wester Ross, where a buoyant tourism sector makes holiday lets particularly profitable.

What is being noted now by many local commentators is the impact that lack of affordable housing is starting to have on the demographics, age-profile and economic activity in outlying districts; school-rolls are dropping, threatening the continued viability of local primaries, older residents in scattered communities are struggling to access home care due to lack of local staff, crofting townships cannot find enough able-bodied shareholders to undertake land management tasks, and successful local businesses are struggling to recruit and retain key workers.

READ MORE – ‘Talk, Think, Do’: Common Weal Skye on Rural Housing

Against this slow-burn demographic crisis it is tempting for communities to abandon hope and say ‘What can we do?’, or to wait for the solution to come from others, the government, or ‘them’.  Some communities however are not waiting for others to devise an imperfect solution, but are seizing the initiative inspired by the Community-led Housing movement.

What is Community-led Housing? This is where local people and communities take a lead in developing the types of affordable, sustainable and good quality housing that they want and need.

At a series of recent events in Skye, pioneers from Sleat, Applecross and Rothiemurchus outlined how different community-led housing models can address the specific issues facing their particular communities – from supported housing to allow older residents to age-in-place, to self-build co-operatives, development trust-owned rented housing and innovative mobile solutions.

At events in Staffin and Sleat Alison Macleod of Applecross Community Company (ACC) spoke about how they are working with the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust to develop supported housing for older residents. Almost all the land on the peninsula is owned by The Applecross Trust which has not made any viable sites available for housing or community use for over a decade. Lack of affordable housing means that young people leave and cannot return and primary school numbers are the lowest they’ve ever been (currently eight pupils). At the same time, like many remote communities, Applecross is dealing with an ageing population, with many older residents living in scattered townships, remote from services and facilities, socially isolated and struggling with large houses. Much of the older housing stock is hard-to-heat and difficult to manage for elderly or disabled people, or those without their own transport. Without age-appropriate or supported housing in Applecross, older residents can be faced with the difficult choice between leaving their community, or struggling on in their own inappropriate homes for as long as they can. You can read her presentation in full here.

However, a small site which NHS Highland is willing to sell to the Community Company may provide a solution to the housing needs of both older and younger residents. In a  pioneering scheme, ACC plans to build three small supported housing units for older residents, which will be available at affordable rents. Tenants will be enabled to stay living in Applecross, while their own houses can be leased to younger residents (also at an affordable rent). ACC aims to provide a locally-based care service as part of the support available, both for tenants in the new houses, and other older residents throughout Applecross. The community hopes that this first project to build community owned affordable housing will encourage the Applecross Trust to free up land for housing and community asset development.  

READ MORE – Ben Wray: The 10 actions we can take to fix housing in Scotland

Susan Walker of Camuscross & Duisdale Initiative (CDI) in Sleat, Skye outlined how the recently opened £1.82 million An Crubh community hub on Skye was funded by grants secured by the community development trust after extensive consultation with their local community. The Big Lottery described it as the best researched project they had ever received. An Crubh began as an idea 20 years ago, went into development in 2008 and opened in April 2017. Susan presented a step-by-step development strategy  that could be applied to any community asset including housing. An Crubh has created nine jobs locally, but lack of affordable housing has hampered recruitment, and one employee is currently living in hostel accommodation seven miles away. Like many private and community-run businesses in Skye, An Crubh is being impacted upon negatively by the lack of affordable housing for key workers. So community-led housing is on the agenda. Susan’s presentation can be read in full here.

Iain Cornfoot of the Sawmill Co-operative in Rothiemurchus described the seven year struggle of their group of young local, like-minded people who, since 2010, have been trying to create a sustainable self-build housing development in one of the most desirable areas of the Highlands. The Sawmill Co-op was formed by seven young locals who wanted to return to, or remain living around Aviemore. Property prices around the tourism hot-spot are some of the highest in the Highlands, and well outside the affordability bracket for people on average local incomes. Most of the group work in the winter sports and outdoor activities sector, with seasonal employment and fluctuating incomes. The breakthrough came when a socially-responsible local landowner agreed to sell four house sites at well below their market value to the Co-operative, in order to enable the four households to self-build. The deal was ‘brokered’ by innovative rural housing enabler HSCHT (Highland Small Communities Housing Trust), who imposed a Rural Housing Burden on the four plots, ensuring they will remain within the local affordable housing market in perpetuity. In return for making the affordable plots available at a significant discount, the landowner has been allowed to retain and sell two additional larger house sites at the full open market price. Iain’s presentation can be read in full here.

Skye based, alternative builder Emma Appleton described her unique solution to her own housing ‘crisis’ on Skye; after completing her apprenticeship in heritage woodworking, Emma and her partner came to Skye, but were unable to find any long-term accommodation. Having always been interested in modular and alternative building, they decided to build a moveable Tiny House on a 3-tonne flat-bed trailer because it suited their situation; they didn’t have a permanent place to live and needed a home which could be moved about to different sites if land became available. So to build something on wheels meant that whatever they decided to do eventually it could come with them or they could sell it for someone else to use. They felt that they were investing in their future together. You can read Emma Appleton’s presentation in full here.

READ MORE – Policy Briefing: What is the government doing about homelessness?

Since then the couple have spent a year and a half building the Tiny House, working on Skye and looking for a home. In that time the lack of housing has meant that they have lived in three different homes, sharing with friends and taking short-term winter lets. Despite following lots of routes through contacts, estate agents and also signing up for the crofts register, the couple have been unable to find a permanent affordable home in Skye and have now decided to move to mid-Wales, where property is more affordable and available.

The lessons which have emerged from sharing these experiences are;

   •    Communities do not have to be powerless in the face of external forces

   •    Access to development land at a reasonable price is the key to affordability in housing

   •    Jobs do not come before housing, nor housing before jobs, we need both together

   •    Initiatives happen because of visionaries and pioneers – they need to be supported through innovative community-government partnerships

   •    Pro-active community development trusts and supportive public policy have a key role to play

   •    New designs and construction techniques are needed to lower the cost of house building in rural areas. More use of locally grown timber could reduce costs, environmental impacts and generate more activity within the economy.

It is hoped that these events on Skye will spark conversations within our communities, inspire action to address the lack of affordable housing, and give people better options for making their lives here – from beginning to end.