Lesley Riddoch: ​Highlands housing crisis is a challenge for government, councils and landowners

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No amount of tourism can save rural Scotland when it hasn’t the homes it needs to house its people, writes Lesley Riddoch.

This summer will be one of the best ever for Scotland’s tourist industry.

No amount of tourism can save rural Scotland when it hasn't the homes it needs to house its people,  writes Lesley Riddoch. Picture: John Devlin

No amount of tourism can save rural Scotland when it hasn't the homes it needs to house its people, writes Lesley Riddoch. Picture: John Devlin

The weakness of the pre-Brexit pound, the trend for staycationing, the discovery of home-grown treasures like the North Coast 500 and weeks of heatwave weather mean foreign and English tourists have been joined by Scots deciding to holiday at home.

But while tourism will undoubtedly hit new heights in 2018, it may also finally expose the housing crisis in remote and rural Scotland, which affects every facet of life and means locals cannot benefit as they should from this seasonal windfall.

Alison Macleod has been community development officer on the Applecross Peninsula for seven years. She and her fisherman husband Alasdair had lived there for 35 years until his tragic death late last year. Now, for lots of reasons, she plans to leave. Obviously, there are personal issues. But there’s also the fact that for long wearying decades the tiny community has been banging its collective head off the brick wall of the Applecross Trust – the landowner which owns most of the 60,000 acres on the peninsula.

Despite a succession of schemes, pleas and campaigns, next to no land has been made available for any kind of community development, including affordable houses. The cost of accommodation has risen rapidly over the last 15 years because of scarcity and the demand for holiday houses. Local people – often dependent on seasonal tourism-related jobs – struggle to get mortgages and cannot compete. Without houses, busy local businesses struggle to recruit and retain staff. Anyone who wants to live on the peninsula must live in a caravan all year round or in shared hotel staff accommodation. The situation is hardly any better than when Alison took up the job. Despite the vast emptiness of Applecross, there is no land for housing. It’s a disgrace. Thanks to a herculean effort, the community energy scheme, Apple Juice, did squeak home just before the UK government cut meaningful subsidies. At least that will attract a worthwhile income to the community – over time.

But right now, tourism is placing an extra burden on the doughty DIY community. Instead of devoting all their energies to finding the land to build affordable homes, the volunteers who staff the Applecross Community Company must spend their precious time catering for the near-constant avalanche of tourists. Effectively, the community of 200 people must clean, maintain and run toilet facilities, also used by dozens of camper vans and caravans to empty waste. Highland Council has withdrawn most of the cash for toilet facilities and there is no properly organised place to dispose of caravan waste locally.

Alison says: “Our local tourist businesses will always welcome visitors to Applecross and make sure they enjoy their time here. We know our local economy is dependent on tourism but our infrastructure needs a lot of investment to cope and we cannot be expected to do it all ourselves. The powers that be expect volunteers to put in an enormous amount of time and effort to ensure communities are sustainable, but there is a limit to what can be done voluntarily with fewer than 200 adults, no matter how able and determined. The result is volunteer burnout and disillusion, not community empowerment.”

Now this may be where the urban majority shrugs, turns over the page or tunes out. I’ve no doubt that, from a city perspective, country folk seem stubbornly unwilling to recognise the facts of life. Of course housing, roads, broadband and basic facilities are poor in the Highlands – that’s what happens when you don’t live in a city.

On Radio Scotland last week, a report about the NHS at 70 highlighted the drastic shortage of doctors, nurses, surgeons and GPs in rural Scotland. The reporter suggested this was inevitable because young people wanting to specialise don’t have a large or wide enough caseload in small towns or rural areas. That may be a problem for some. But for many NHS staff, keen to live a more sustainable life in beautiful surroundings, the problem is far simpler: no housing, no land for housing and no expectation that modest housing schemes will get through planning. It’s the same story across the Highlands. Rural Scotland is not a basket case destined for unavoidable decline. But resourceful Highland, island and rural folk have their hands tied behind their backs when it comes to building the infrastructure that supports life.

According to Argyll builder and former MSP Mike Mackenzie: “There are struggling farmers and crofters aplenty who would happily turn a corner of a field into a high-quality camper van site. Visual impact might be easily mitigated by dry stane dykes and a few native trees. Decent laybys at appropriate intervals could relieve many of the road problems without turning single-track roads into motorways. With less than 2 per cent of the Highlands under development, we have land aplenty. The reluctance embodied in the planning system to use this resource is simply perverse.”

The Highlands’ chronic housing shortage is also making schools become unviable – in Argyll and Bute, the 26 village and island schools saved ten years ago may soon close because of falling rolls.

Local youngsters, about to start families, are the most desperate. Four years ago a group of young adults in Aviemore planned to club together, buy a field and hope they would win planning permission to build houses co-operatively using sweat labour to make it affordable. But despite expert help, nothing happened and most have left the area and some even the country. This haemorrhaging has to stop.

What’s the big problem? Some suggest housing associations seek economies of scale and opt to build blocks of 50 houses in urban areas rather than five to ten houses in rural areas. Others suggest the process is bureaucratic, cumbersome and so slow that the demand for housing has generally fled long before the houses are ready. Community houses built near Ulva took almost ten years to complete. There are very few people who can maintain their energy, enthusiasm and patience over this kind of timescale. Funding evaporates and any vestige of entrepreneurial spirit withers away.

The situation demands urgent action – the Planning Bill currently before Holyrood offers a vehicle for bold solutions. Let’s not continue the pretence one summer longer. Extra tourists alone cannot save rural Scotland.