Editorial: Delivering small housing developments in rural areas should not be so difficult

Plans for housing and business units in north Skye

WHFP Editorial 3.7.20

Confirmation last week that Staffin in north Skye will get its first affordable housing development in more than 20 years is hugely welcome, though the story immediately raises an obvious question.

Why has it taken so long?

It is a question and a quandary that could be applied in many districts of the west coast and Hebrides.

In areas of plentiful space, but in which school rolls are falling and the working population in decline it seems obvious that communities, if they are to maintain any kind of youthful sustainability, will need a regularly replenished housing supply.

Communities, and the trusts and bodies which represent them all recognise this.

There have been various pieces of legislation passed that should empower them to be able to do something about it.

Yet frustration still abounds.

Land and legal hurdles

The Staffin Community Trust has itself recorded the “widespread disappointment and concern in north-east Skye as the construction of affordable housing has been heavily concentrated in more densely populated communities like Portree and Broadford, which has not helped with the retention of young people.”

The same could be said in places like Lewis, where swathes of land on the outskirts of Stornoway has been developed, while the crofting districts on the island’s west side hollow out.

By any standards, six-houses in north Skye is a fairly modest development.

But it has taken Staffin Community Trust more than six years to overcome legal and land hurdles and to source the money required to do so.

That funding package, helped by a crowd funding campaign, has exceeded £100,000 – all before a spade can even go into the ground.

It is understandable to see why local housing associations – and in Skye the LSHA has been hugely supportive of the Staffin project – inevitably choose to concentrate their focus on areas where land is easiest to procure.

At one stage the Staffin idea had also faced opposition from Scottish Natural Heritage – an agency branded ‘See No Humans’ after it expressed fears the houses would hinder views of the Trotternish Ridge.

These objections were quietly dropped, but closer to home crofting laws proved an additional stumbling block.

Crofting veto

The Staffin Community Trust, quite deliberately in order to protect the agricultural interest, had identified for their proposed housing site an area of poor grazing land in the hope that crofters – who have a share on it – would agree to its sale and use.

All but one of them did.

Under crofting legislation that objection was enough to act as an effective veto – which eventually took a rare Scottish Land Court action (as detailed here) to resolve.

The erosion of hard-fought crofting rights is the last thing for which the West Highland Free Press would argue.

Thanks to security of tenure, succession rights, and favourable grant and loan schemes crofting has been the Highlands and Islands’ most effective affordable housing policy for more than a century.

But it seems ridiculous that a development for local families – earmarked for bare pasture of little other use – can still be blocked on the whim of one individual.

And the irony is that anyone familiar with the region would be able to point to countless examples of ‘in-bye’ land – the better quality fields that traditionally accompany a croft house – being carved up and sold on as expensive plots without a murmur from either planners or crofting regulators.

Legislation and public bodies

In recent years we have seen parliamentary acts on crofting, community empowerment and the right-to-buy land, as well as a much-heralded Scottish islands bill.

There are also more than enough public bodies.

Addressing rural depopulation – accompanied by a targeted budget to fund small housing schemes and self-build croft houses – could be a mission which unites these organisations in the Highlands and Islands.

But the Scottish Land Commission, the crofting commission, housing associations and local authorities have to be better at working together to make sure the legislation we already have makes a difference and delivers results.

The Staffin example tells us that a way must be found to protect the rights of individual crofters and agricultural land for the wider interest, while at the same time ensuring ground is also made available to house families on which the future of these communities will depend.