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August 11, 2020

Unnecessary hard slog

Great news from Mull recently that the go-ahead has been given for four affordable homes at Ulva Ferry on the west side of the island. This is the culmination of three years of hard slog to secure the land and to piece together a complicated jigsaw of funding. But not every rural community has a development trust like MICT with the expertise and resources to make this kind of development happen. Resolving Scotland’s rural housing crisis should not be this challenging. Rural Housing Scotland’s Derek Logie makes the case for more concerted government action.

Derek Logie

The Highlands have been subject to steady de-population for the last half-century and have been treated like a dying patient to whom people have been handing out hot gruel, etc., with the patient merely grumbling and growling as it went into a decline… The one urgent thing is to stop any further migration. In addition we want to bring people back to the Highlands. Last year I spent some time going round the Highlands and the urgency of doing something for the womenfolk, giving them decent houses and modern facilities, was stressed upon me as being absolutely imperative if people were to remain in the Highlands. In one village all the young women had disappeared. There was a male population which was going to die out because without women no country can survive,” Arthur Woodburn MP, Secretary of State for Scotland 1949

I’m learning French at the moment and the quote above would be a good illustration for that French proverb “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” -the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Highlands are again experiencing depopulation, research from the James Hutton Institute highlights the demographic timebomb facing remote rural areas with urgent policy measures required to help young people remain and encourage in-migration.

I came across the quote from Arthur Woodburn MP in a 1949 House of Commons debate on Swedish Houses. I was researching the background to the construction of the village of Achnamara in Argyll in the mid-fifties. Achnamara was one several villages constructed in the late 40’s and 50’s to provide homes for forestry workers. The homes at Achnamara were amongst several thousand ordered by Robert Matthew, the Chief Architect in the Department of Health for Scotland who had been stranded in Sweden during the war but used his time there to design house kits that would conform to Scottish building regulations – see Timber Cladding in Scotland 2002.

This debate in Parliament frames the ambition of the time, highlighting that Crudens of Musselburgh are “nearing the completion of their 3000 rural houses programme” with the Secretary of State discussing how “at the moment about 1600 houses are being built in the Highlands”. As Woodburn put it the Government made this “kind of blood transfusion into the Highlands” happen, bringing in contractors to build at scale because “we cannot wait three years to get them” and the local construction industry “simply cannot tackle the job”.

Rural Housing Scotland are currently working on a housing project in the Argyllshire village of Achnamara. The community want to build affordable housing to enable young working people to settle there. Young people are being priced out of the area and without them Achnamara will be, as one community member put it, “an elderly and a holiday place”.

The community at Achnamara are like many rural communities across Scotland. They want to provide homes for young people to remain and return, opportunities for new households to settle and appropriate homes to enable old people stay. All recognise that housing is crucial to stem depopulation, sustain local schools and services and help the economy grow. These communities are “doing it themselves” partly because they want to own and control the housing to make sure it meets their communities’ needs, partly because rural communities have always been self reliant, partly because housing associations and councils have abandoned rural development in recent years and partly due to the failure of the developer led model to deliver in rural areas.

Community led housing that contributes to the regeneration and repopulation of our rural communities is an essential part of urgent action required to stem depopulation and provide homes. There are communities across rural Scotland with housing projects ready to go: such as Ballater, Braemar and Bunessan (and that’s just the B’s!). These communities need help to drive forward housing ambitions, but government funding for this support from organisations like Rural Housing Scotland has been axed.

Rural communities are being expected by government to help tackle the rural housing crisis and depopulation without help to build their capacity, and without expert advice and support. They are being asked to jump through bureaucratic hoops to prove they need houses and deserve public investment. An innovative housing project to create new “Smart Clachans” to stem depopulation on the Isle of Luing has been turned down for funding because there is nobody on the housing waiting list – there is nobody on the list because there are no homes! So young people leave. This is Argyll which is haemorrhaging population and the local council strategy is to support repopulation initiatives – never mind stated national government policy is to tackle rural depopulation.

Small community organisations are stepping up to the challenge but development is delayed as they’re asked to borrow thousands to pay up front for housing development when the government is sitting on millions of grant funding it cant spend because they’re placing hoops and obstacles in front of the very communities they say they want to fund.

Post COVID recovery like the post war period offers us an opportunity for renewal, to rebuild better; to roll out a programme of house construction across rural Scotland; working with rural communities to deliver the housing they need. There is an opportunity to boost rural economies by using this programme to create a market for the development of cross laminated timber (CLT) buildings in Scotland utilising local timber. This would ensure that the benefit of public investment in housing was not just the production of homes but the creation of jobs in construction and in manufacturing. Using local timber will also have significant environmental benefits and by building back better we can finally tackle the endemic fuel poverty in rural Scotland.

Rural Scotland requires a further “blood transfusion” to bring new blood and life to our remote communities. Post COVID this needs the Scottish Government to be as ambitious as we were post war.

To this end, the Scottish Government should establish an action plan to ‘build back better’ and support rural communities post-COVID:

  • A programme of 10,000 homes in rural Scotland over the next five years
  • The establishment of a national land banking agency to secure land for housing – purchasing land at current use value and engaging with local communities to ensure land is acquired in the best location – see Housing Land Corporation
  • The priority development of homes in areas of depopulation to enable young people to remain and enable the settlement of those looking for a more rural life post COVID
  • The creation of a national building company to deliver rural homes at scale – working with local communities to build what’s needed, where its needed and transferring ownership of finished homes to local trusts
  • The development of a facility to manufacture cross laminated timber homes at scale with standard ‘kits’ customised to meet local circumstances/venacular – with passivhaus as standard to meet climate change targets and tackle rural fuel poverty.