Scotland's islands need opportunities, not £50,000 inducements to live there – Martyn McLaughlin

A few weeks ago, I was walking with my father-in-law along the pebble-strewn beach of Gletness, a hamlet nestled on a sparsely populated peninsula on the east coast of the Shetland mainland.

One of the few houses by the water’s edge was a tumbledown old croft. Its single pane windows were thick with dust, but you could still make out the detritus of a life left behind.

My father-in-law, cottoning on, nodded towards a nearby caravan. “You could live in that while you’re doing it up,” he said, an impish grin forming on his face. “As long as you’re finished by the winter, of course.”

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The truth, of course, is that turning such a sorry wee howff into a home would be just as harsh even in more forgiving seasons. What about the lack of available builders? The exorbitant cost of materials? The likelihood that even to gain a foothold in this remote nook, a fierce bidding war must be won?

Since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, such properties have been in high demand in Shetland, with the overwhelming majority of prospective buyers hailing from mainland Scotland and England – one island estate agent reckons he has not seen such a clamour for houses for a quarter of a century.

Numerous buyers from down south have even concluded their sales without viewing the property, and the property market data supports my father-in-law’s reproachful theory that “people have lost the plot”; according to Registers of Scotland’s house price index, values spiked by 31.7 per cent in the 12 months to May 2021.

I hope those folk relocating to Shetland find what they are looking for, and that the gap between expectation and reality is manageable. As things stand, there will be plenty more families having the same conversations over the coming years, with the relocation trend sparked by the pandemic set to intensify thanks to the Scottish government’s proposed islands bond initiative.

The scheme, currently subject to consultation, would provide up to 100 households with £50,000 to move to, or stay on, one of Scotland’s 93 inhabited islands over the next five years. The details have yet to be fleshed out, but it is, according to the government, a form of “direct intervention” designed to stem depopulation and allow people to buy, build, or renovate homes, and start businesses.

House prices have soared in Shetland over the past year, pricing many local families out of the market. (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

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At first glance, anything which prompts debate over how to ensure islands can forge a sustainable future is to be welcomed. Regrettably, it will take considerably more than a cash incentive for a handful of families to deliver that.

While its ambition is laudable, the initiative risks becoming a crude, top-down measure – one at odds with the government’s commitment, via the Islands (Scotland) Bill, to empower rural communities.

It is an eye-catching proposal, for sure, and predictably, it has elicited the kind of excitable clickbait chatter designed to ask city dwellers if they would be prepared to give up all their home comforts for a crack at the good life.

But there is no recognition – as yet – of the scheme’s potential to do more harm than good by distorting the market and inflating house prices in small communities. What those communities need is reimagined policy and legislation which provides people with opportunities instead of inducements.

With their spectacular natural landscapes, relative lack of crime, and excellent education, there is no shortage of existing incentives to island life. What has long been missing, however, is a concerted, co-ordinated approach to tackle the stubborn issues which contribute to depopulation.

In Shetland, a generation of young people are languishing on waiting lists for social housing, while those fortunate enough to have savings are being outbid by those from further afield. The dilemma is not unique to the archipelago.

In one area of southern Mull, around seven out of ten houses are now holiday cottages, while in Luskentyre, one of the most beautiful dune-backed headlands on Harris, there are around 38 properties that have either been built, or which have planning consent – and just 17 are homes for permanent residents.

Instead of giving families pots of cash to compete in this overheated market, the government would be best investing in the existing rural and islands housing fund, which has allowed for some welcome community-led development.

But more than that, the housing dilemma cannot be remedied without an acceptance for new models to bring forward the availability of land. On this front, the government has been woefully timid.

Even these steps would only be a start. There remains the issues of unreliable and exorbitant lifeline transport links, a second-rate digital infrastructure, and the higher cost of day-to-day living, which is most pronounced in the form of petrol prices and postal charges.

Life on Scotland’s islands can be immensely enriching and rewarding. It can also be precarious and fickle, with hard-won hard won attempts to create dynamic local economies undone at the stroke of a pen.

Take the small Orkney island of Flotta as an example. Back in 2010, its primary school was mothballed due to the fact there were no young children left in the community. In June, however, the archipelago’s local authority agreed to partially reopen it.

The decision was spurred by the arrival of new families on the island, but even that bright new future is already in doubt. Within the space of a few weeks, Repsol Sinopec announced cost-cutting plans which could leave 14 jobs at Flotta’s oil terminal – its main employer – at risk. In a place where the population stands at around 80, the repercussions of that single economic decision could well prove to be catastrophic.

Of course, the government cannot intervene in every instance. What it can do, however, is commit to bold, transformative action which allows communities to determine their own futures. None of this is easy, but it is infinitely preferable to short-term gimmicks.

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