This is particularly the case in more sparsely populated areas of Scotland such as Na h-Eileanan Siar, where I am based. In rural and remote areas, clusters of empty homes can be both a cause and effect of the closure of shops and schools, the desertion of once-thriving towns and villages, lack of community cohesion and confidence, and loneliness and isolation among individuals.
Thankfully, the situation is changing in the Western Isles, with 110 empty properties brought back into use in just two years thanks to our work with the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and the development of some innovative strategies.
As a former builder turned Empty Homes Officer, I realised that the key to encouraging people to restore empty homes was to make it affordable. The owners I was working with were generally people who had inherited run-down properties they couldn’t afford to restore, and families on limited incomes who were drawn to the isles for quality of life and had bought an empty home that needed renovation.
Working with contractors and suppliers, I developed a discount programme with these companies for owners of empty homes which has been very successful. When combined with the fiscal benefits and incentives supported by the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, such as the VAT discount, this programme brought the prospect of bringing back empty homes within reach for many individuals and families.
The impact on local communities of this work can be very positive, particularly in terms of the potential for supporting schools, churches and other community facilities, by keeping (and attracting) families to some of our remotest villages. In the South Lochs area of Lewis, a family with 5 children have been able to move in to the area and this will have a positive impact on the school roll. The impact of this on the confidence and spirit of the community cannot be overstated.
These communities and many others in the region are now filled with a sense of hope and pride that can only come from investing in a revitalised streetscape and the future of the next generation.
For local authorities presiding over rural and remote areas of Scotland, the importance of reviving empty homes to achieve community regeneration cannot be overstated. I’ve witnessed schools at risk of closing now thriving, as well as local shops and businesses. The impact on the local economy has been exponential.
Construction and other contract work from the swathe of empty homes development activity has bolstered the local economy even further and provided employment opportunities that have attracted even more people to the region. A win-win situation for both communities and local businesses.
Every empty property has the potential to become a home. In the context of the current housing crisis across Scotland, local authorities must look at empty homes – which are often family sized - as an efficient housing and community regeneration solution.
Murdo Macleod, Empty Homes Officer, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar