Skye and the north-west Highlands not only have the worst levels of mortgage arrears in Scotland. We have the worst levels by a country mile.
Figures assembled by the debt relief charity Step Change indicate that while the average Scottish mortgage debt is £2,800, in the constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch it is a whopping £16,000.
Even within the Highlands as a whole that is a shocking sum – the Highland average of mortgage arrears is £4,600. That is almost twice the national average. But in Skye, we are told, our arrears are six times the national average, with almost a third of mortgage payers affected.
We should introduce a note of caution. Step Change has extrapolated its conclusions from a small sample of the population. It is possible, if not likely, that things are not quite that bad.
Unless Step Change is completely off the chart, things are nonetheless bad enough. And our indebtedness extends beyond house payments. The Highlands and Islands have the highest levels of electricity bill arrears in Scotland, something which will be owed to our climate and our extortionate bills, and which has already been advertised by our uniquely high levels of fuel poverty.
Overall, people in the Highlands and Islands are twice as much in debt as elsewhere in Scotland, and people in the north-west of Scotland are even more in hock to lenders and to utility companies.
Those astonishingly high figures for mortgage debt – and therefore, of course, of potential foreclosures and homelessness – in this region cannot easily be explained away. It is the result of a combination of factors.
House prices in Skye and the western Highlands began to rise, from a low base, in the 1980s.
The speed of growth took everybody by surprise. A simple crofthouse which in the early 1980s might have sold for £25,000 or less can now fetch ten times that amount.
The selling price was dictated more by location than the quality of the property. At first the holiday home sector played the most active part in pushing up prices.
Throw a 21st century tourist boom and all of its ancillary money spinners such as buy-to-let properties and Airbnb into the mix, add a resident population which has grown by 50 per cent since the 1970s, and the result is a skewed and uncontrollable local housing market.
It is a market into which local working people are obliged to enter. Everybody needs somewhere to live. Local housing associations have done a good job in offering affordable rented homes. Clearly, however, Skye and the north-west have never recovered from the Tory assault on local authority ‘council’ housing in the 1980s. In the absence of sufficient decent social housing, people have to buy.
The result has been that young people, in particular, have been obliged to enter what is now one of the most expensive and volatile housing markets in the United Kingdom. Those same young people live in a region with some of the worst-paid and insecure jobs in the country.
That is not a formula for a stable society. Low wages and high house prices, in a region where the general cost of living is also high, provides the perfect recipe for unsustainable levels of mortgage arrears, as well as unpaid electricity and other bills – and that is exactly what we have got.
There are two obvious solutions. They will not be achieved overnight, but they should be pushed quickly up the agenda of all of our local businesses and elected representatives.
It is clear that the tourism riches that have recently descended on Skye and the north-west are not evenly distributed. If we want people to stay and live and work here, they must be paid at least a living wage: a salary which will enable them to buy houses.
And central and local government must invest much more in social housing. That will depend upon finance from the Scottish Government and the initiative of Highland Council. The £80 million pledged this week by the former towards local authority housing is a good start. But there are 32 councils in Scotland. The money cannot be divided equally. Priority must be given to regions such as this which suffer most gravely from unaffordable housing. Otherwise it will be a drop in the Minch.