Why are there so many empty homes in the Outer Hebrides?

An abandoned croft at South Lochboisdale, South Uist. Work is ongoing to bring such properties back into use for the benefit of the local housing market. PIC: Peter Moore/www.geograph.org.
An abandoned croft at South Lochboisdale, South Uist. Work is ongoing to bring such properties back into use for the benefit of the local housing market. PIC: Peter Moore/www.geograph.org.
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Many people daydream of living there - so why do the Outer Hebrides have the highest rates of empty homes in Scotland?

Research has found that 522 properties in Na h-Eileanan Siar, or the Western Isles, have been lying empty for six months or more.

Now, action is being taken to bring these houses back into use for the benefit of those who need an affordable long-term roof over their heads.

Latest figures show that 8.3 per cent of dwellings in the islands were vacant in 2017 compared to the Scottish average of 3.1 per cent.

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Most of the empty homes can be found in North Uist - 170 properties - with the next greatest numbers found in Stornoway, Harris and Barra.

A spokesman for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, or Western Isles Council, said many of the empty homes were typically the 'old family home' left vacant when a new modern house - often built through the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme - was built on the same croft.

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He added: "The old one is often kept for family members to use as a holiday home, or kept in the hope that the children of the owner would move back to the island, if they moved away for education or employment, to live there.

"Unfortunately, many people are not able to return home, due to lack of employment opportunities, for example, and a lot of these houses tend to fall into disrepair fairly quickly due to the climate."

The spokesman said it was often the case that owners of these old family homes don't want to sell the property, or rent it out, as it is too close to the new home and would impinge on their privacy.

In April 2018, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar appointed Murdo MacLeod as an empty homes officer with the hope of bringing some of the properties into the local housing system and help those in need.

Owners of most of the empty homes on the islands have been traced and contacted to find out what their intentions are with the properties. Around 60 per cent live in the Outer Hebrides with most others living on the Scottish mainland. A small number live overseas.

Since Mr MacLeod has been in place, 61 properties have been sold, rented out or refurbished.

At present, there are an additional 28 properties in the process of being sold, 14 to be rented out and 84 being renovated.

Mr MacLeod has worked with a number of local and national suppliers to get discounts for those carrying out works on an empty property.

Research has found that the majority of those doing up these vacant homes intend to rent them out through Airbnb and the short-term lets market.

"The Comhairle has little control over the use to which owners put their properties and whilst the sustainable growth of tourism is a long-standing objective....the redeployment of these often family-sized properties has a significant impact on the amount of homes which are being made available for long-term private sector rent throughout the islands."

The council has also found that some owners of empty dwellings are simply unable to afford the renovation of their properties.

It has been suggested that means-tested grant funding might be made available to these owners to help bring the properties into use.

If small grants are awarded, it could be stipulated what the homes could be used for in the future, such as offered on an affordable private rent for a number of years.

Mr MacLeod has been named a finalist in the outstanding individual category of the The Howdens Scottish Empty Homes Champions of the Year Awards, which will be held in Edinburgh on November 20.