How regeneration of Scotland's derelict houses is driving economic growth

The  Campbeltown property before and after restoration. Picture: submitted
The Campbeltown property before and after restoration. Picture: submitted
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Campbeltown in Argyll is one of Scotland’s many remote communities being revived by work to transform empty properties.

It was once a thriving industrial town renowned for its shipbuilding, fishing and whiskies, but when such industries fell into decline during the 1920s, the community suffered from unemployment and buildings became vacant.

The restored Achiltibuie property. Picture:  Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust

The restored Achiltibuie property. Picture: Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust

One such property is an 18th-century tenement at the corner of Main Street and Cross Street. The B-listed building is one of Campbeltown’s oldest tenements and with grants of £390,000 from the Campbeltown Townscape Heritage Initiative and £60,000 from Argyll and Bute Council’s housing service, restoration was made possible.

It resulted in four high-quality flats which are now available for the private rent sector and three commercial units have been brought back into use with two new businesses opening.

The reinstatement of road access along Cross Street also provided a boost for neighbouring businesses and, with Argyll-based MacLeod Construction as the main contractor for the restoration, the local economy is on the rise.

The property was one of more than 37,000 privately-owned empty homes across Scotland.

Countrywide

These projects are being carried out the length and breadth of the country in an effort spearheaded by the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SHEP), which is funded by the Scottish Government and delivered by housing charity Shelter Scotland.

National project manager at SEHP Shaheena Din says that long-term neglected homes can have a profound impact on the community.

“Living next door to an empty property can be horrible. It can cause a blight on the community and often it will be subject to fire, vandalism and overgrown unkempt gardens.

“Research shows that if you live next door to an empty property, your own property can drop in value by 18 per cent. In contrast, if the property is back in use it can help sustain the local shops, it can help keep the post office going and bus routes.”

The SEHP is a capacity building service that was set up in 2010 to support a network of empty homes officers across Scotland to breathe life back into properties that have been empty for at least six months.

In addition, where there is no local empty homes officer the partnership can advise local projects on sources of funding such as the Scottish Government’s Rural and Islands Housing Funds.

There are 21 councils which now have dedicated members of staff who are tackling the issue of privately-owned empty homes and it is hoped that the remaining 11 councils will take up grants to test the benefits of empty homes officers in their area.

The empty homes officers are supported through a range of guides and tools produced by SEHP to understand what has worked in other locations as well as training and ongoing learning.

Din, who has previously held advisory roles at Shelter Scotland, says: “Our key ambition is to see an empty homes officer in every local authority in Scotland.

“The reason that we think that is so important is that where there is a dedicated focus, we see more homes being brought back into use.”

Every year, the efforts of those grafting to bring empty buildings back to life are celebrated at the Howdens Scottish Champion of the Year Awards, organised by the partnership.

Achiltibuie project

The most recent winner of the top title is a former 19th-century schoolhouse in the remote community of Achiltibuie, near Coigach in Ross and Cromarty.

It was restored by Coigach Community Development Company and the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust.

Din says the property remained empty for five years once the headteacher had retired and it fell into a state of disrepair.

The building was transformed into two new affordable flats to be privately let.

She says: “There was no social housing in Achiltibuie and this lack of affordable housing contributed to the loss of population, particularly younger people who had moved away because they were unable to afford a home in their local community.

“They transformed this into two new affordable flats to rent specifically for key workers who were invited to work in that community and actually sustain it.

“They are looking at other properties nearby to see what they can do to bring them back into use.”

It makes sense to do so as the estimated annual cost of owning an empty home is £7,000 in terms of loss of rent, council tax and repairs, according to Din.

She says it is also economically worthwhile carrying out these projects as each household spends £13,400 on average in their local community every year through use of services such as hairdressers, shops, pubs and restaurants.

While the average cost of a new-build home in Scotland is £100,000, it is cost effective to refurbish existing empty properties as the estimated cost of renovation is between £6,000 and £25,000.

Din says: “It makes sense for businesses to have empty homes as part of something they want to do.

“Increasing footfall increases the vibrancy of the place as well, it can sustain communities.

“We are now looking to see how we can join up with as many organisations as possible to bring as many properties back into use.”