View from the North: Two community-led housing initiatives in the Hebrides

Ben Wray

Shaz Morton and Andrew Prendergast provide the latest update from a series of Common Weal Skye events on community-led housing in the Highlands & Islands. They describe the key aspects of community-led housing and look at two initiatives that are putting the principles into practise 

LAST month Common Weal Skye held the third in a series of events focussing on rural regeneration and housing in the Highlands & Islands.  We were delighted to welcome two speakers; Agnes Rennie of Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn (Galson Estate Trust) on the Isle of Lewis, and Andrew Prendergast, Isle of Skye-based rural development practitioner. 

Andrew is currently organising a housing needs survey of his local community on Skye’s Sleat peninsula. It is hoped that the survey will give the community a clearer picture of the scale, type and urgency of the need for affordable housing in their area. This will be invaluable in shaping a community-led housing initiative for Sleat, an area where a quarter of the housing stock is holiday lets and second homes, and incomes are 10% below the Scottish average.

Andrew gave an overview of Community-led Housing models which he hopes will inspire more pro-activity in the Highlands & Islands:

Community-led Housing (CLH) is a movement which is currently attracting a lot of attention throughout the UK. A broad church, it covers a wide range of alternative housing models from rental co-operatives, and mutual equity homeownership to collective self-build and commissioning. 

READ MORE – Halting the Exodus: How a community-led housing movement is taking rural repopulation into its own hands.

Community-led housing is a way for communities to provide affordable homes that meet specific local needs. It may be designed to help certain groups – young people, older people, or those in need of affordable family homes. It’s often eco-friendly and sustainable. Crucially it differs from the ‘standard’ social housing as provided by housing associations and councils in being co-designed by and for a particular group of local people. It includes alternative housing models that offer a ‘third way’ between the private market, and public provision.

Broadly speaking the features which define CLH models are;

– The community is integrally involved throughout the process in key decisions like what is provided, where, and for who. They don’t necessarily have to initiate the conversation, or build homes themselves.

– There is a presumption that the community will take a long term formal role in the ownership, stewardship or management of the homes.

– The benefits of the scheme to the local community and/or specified beneficiary group are clearly defined and legally protected in perpetuity.

Community-led housing should not displace or duplicate the provision of social housing by RSL’s (Registered Social Landlords like housing associations) where it exists. However, in many of the remoter areas of rural Scotland, there has been little or no provision of social housing for decades. Even where RSLs are active, there is a role for communities to facilitate the creation of housing types and tenures which mainstream social housing does not fulfil.

“In many of the remoter areas of rural Scotland, there has been little or no provision of social housing for decades. Even where Registered Social Landlords are active, there is a role for communities to facilitate the creation of housing types and tenures which mainstream social housing does not fulfil.”

A brief overview of just some of these might include:

– Limited equity housing co-operatives: co-operatives in which the members have a share in the capital value of their home, and the development is funded partly by the members’ personal finance and partly with a corporate mortgage to the co-op.

– Market value co-operatives: often known as ‘co-housing’, ownership of the properties is vested in the co-op, while members are free to buy and sell the right to occupy their homes on the open market. There may be varying degrees of communal usage of collective assets like gardens, growing areas, tool sheds and common areas.

– Collective self-build groups: groups of households who collectively procure their own homes, either through self-build/sweat equity or jointly commissioning a developer/builder. They may form a co-op to undertake some of the procurement and subsequent management functions. Where plots are provided at less than market value there would normally be some kind of title burden controlling future sales.

These are just some of the innovative options possible under the banner of community-led housing and they offer people affordable alternatives to the stark choice between renting and being a ‘slave’ to a 25 year mortgage. A small number of pioneering grass-roots groups are beginning to explore these models in Scotland, but there is scope for an awful lot more activity to address the crisis in affordable rural housing. Community empowerment and the ownership of land assets presents an opportunity for rural communities to encourage and facilitate more of these exciting initiatives.  

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

Our second speaker, Agnes Rennie then described just how the communities of the Galson Estate in North-West Lewis had used these powers to buy out their crofting lands in 2007. This created Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn ( – a community landlord, but nevertheless one which must work in partnership with the 22 crofting townships which make up the estate. 

Immediately upon purchase the Trust became responsible for 56,000 acres of inby croft land and common grazings, which generated very little income and had limited potential to do so. They quickly identified renewable energy as a potential source of significant income, and by 2015 had managed to erect three 900kW turbines at a total cost of £5 million. The investment was raised through a mixture of commercial bank lending and a local share offer which raised £705,800 from 167 investors. The Baile an Truiseil development is now producing an average annual surplus of £415,000 after loan repayments and share interest.

Having secured a significant source of income for their community, the Trust needed to identify the key priorities for investment over the coming years. During 2015-16 they undertook an extensive consultation process within the community which has resulted in a 20 year strategic plan. The plan identifies three key priorities for investment;

Elderly Care: with an ageing and isolated population the need for appropriate housing, social care and respite services will be critical.

Tourism: the Galson area has great under-developed potential to provide a uniquely authentic visitor experience, creating local business opportunities.

Crofting & Land Use: agriculture remains important to community life in the area, and collective initiatives can help counteract the economic disincentives to crofting.

It is under the priority of elderly care that Galson Trust is proposing a ground-breaking development in community-led housing initiatives. Early discussions have taken place with key partners and the Trust is optimistic that the resulting development will meet a number of community aspirations. This innovative proposal could well become a blue-print for the future of community based social care in remote and rural areas of the Highlands.