Focus: Tackling ‘myths’ to meet rural housing challenge

In Kyle of Lochalsh, 13 new flats have just been completed on the corner of Main Street, while a further six are due to be completed by April 2020. Photos by Willie Urquhart – WHFP.

Keith MacKenzie examines the Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association’s plans to expand the area’s housing stock

Housing, and the issues surrounding it – where it is, who owns it, who lives in it and how much it costs – is a subject always likely to provoke debate in the Highlands and Islands.

The major concerns are familiar: there isn’t enough housing available and what is available can often be too expensive. But one agency tasked with developing, managing and maintaining social housing in the region insist measures are being taken to address problems they acknowledge exist, but which they say can also be blurred by common misconceptions.

Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association say their current housebuilding programme is extensive, well-funded and responsive to demand.

Maureen Taylor, the association’s housing services manager, believes a lot of people have the wrong impression about housing lists, allocation policies and the location of developments.

“We’re keen to bust those myths and let people know that the picture isn’t what they might think it is,” she said.

Several projects planned

Myth number one about housing is that there isn’t any housing.
The Scottish Government has committed funding for social housing in the Highlands totalling over £130 million between 2018 and 2021. The area’s budget will reach almost £50 million in 2020-2021 – and in Skye and Lochalsh, this means funds are in place for extensive development.

A five-year development programme, worth £25 million, will result in more than 200 new houses being built by the association by 2023.

The problems facing the association don’t tend to surround funding for housing units per se, but in the availability and price of land, planning constraints and in building costs which are an estimated 20 per cent higher in Skye than they are in Inverness.

Work, however, continues apace on eight separate projects in Skye and Lochalsh, which combined will home as many as 300 people.

Work in progress at Kyleakin Feus in July 2019

In September work is expected to be completed on a 14-house development in Kyleakin. There are four projects in Portree – flats on Upper and Lower Struan Road and the former Rapson’s bus site will be able to accommodate as many as 150, while a two-house scheme is also going up in Staffin Road.

In Kyle of Lochalsh, 13 flats have just been completed on the corner of Main Street while next door, on the site of the old Hydro shop, a further six are due to be completed by next April.

In Staffin, a project between LSHA, Highland Small Communities Housing Trust and the Staffin Trust will see the first six affordable homes built in the district for over 20 years, while in 2020 three more houses are planned for Uig.

In Broadford, plans to build a further 54 affordable homes cleared their first planning hurdle in May. The 54 houses are a fourth phase in the Campbell’s Farm development which has seen extensive housebuilding over the past decade.

Further work will continue in the coming years. A site in Armadale has been identified for eight or 16 houses, depending on demand. A second phase of work in Kyleakin, which will see 28 houses added to the scheme currently under construction, is also proposed, while four more homes are set to be built in Glenelg and another site has been earmarked for Raasay.

The housing association hope their plans for districts like Glenelg, Raasay, and Uig will help dispel perceptions that they are only interested in building homes in the established population centres.

However, the agency also admits that securing land in crofting areas can be fraught with difficulty – on grounds of cost, the requirements of crofting law and in securing agreements from the various parties who have an interest in the land.

In Staffin, the objection of one common grazings shareholder means the Scottish Land Court may eventually be required to settle a social housing project that has taken years to progress.

Allocations based on need

Housing association officer John Lamont and Broadford architect Mark Womble look over plans for possible new developments in Broadford.

If there as an acknowledgment that social housebuilding is going on, frustrations surrounding waiting lists and allocation policies still abound.

We’ve all heard stories that tend to go something like this: ‘The waiting list is huge and there’s little point getting your name on it because all the houses go to folk that come from elsewhere/are on benefits/have young children/are unemployed.’

But Maureen Taylor’s message to anyone looking for a house is a simple-one: register an interest, and don’t believe that it’s a futile exercise.

“The first thing is to say we don’t have a waiting list – we have a housing list, and houses are allocated on the basis of need rather than the time anyone has been on that list,” she added.

Mrs Taylor said that the housing association did not and could not allocate on the basis of an applicant’s income, whether they have a job, or whether they have been raised in the local area.

At the end of the year, there were 7,890 applicants on the Highland Housing Register looking for housing in the Highlands. The register is Highland-wide, but applicants have to state their preferred location. The average time an applicant spent waiting for a house was one year and five months.

The statistics show that in Skye and Lochalsh the majority of homes for rent are allocated within a year of people applying for a tenancy. The association made 52 homes available in the past 12 months – and 24 of them were to applicants who had spent six months or less on the housing list, with a further nine going to those who had waited up to a year. The previous year 46 of the 72 allocations were made to people on the list for less than a year – 31 of them to those waiting for under six months.

Furthermore, the association also point out that most successful applicants are people who have lived in the area for a substantial period of time.

In 2017-18, 81 per cent of the allocations (59 in total) went to folk who had lived in Skye and Lochalsh for at least five years. Just six per cent – or four people – were new and had applied from elsewhere.

In the past 12 months the percentage of allocations going to those living in Skye and Lochalsh for more than five years fell, but at 71 per cent this group still represents the vast bulk of LSHA tenants.

Demographic shift towards people living on their own

Beinn na Callich provides the backdrop for a recent development Suisnish Place in Broadford.

As far as demography goes, just over half of last year’s allocations went to people between the ages of 16 and 35, and most to people who did not have children.

More allocations (12) were made to single men than any other group in Skye and Lochalsh last year. Ten homes were allocated to single females; 10 to couples with children and eight to single mothers.

The previous year 46 of the 72 allocations were to single people – 26 of them female – while there were 13 to families with children; eight to couples without children; and just five to single women with children.

In each of the past two years, the reasons for seeking a tenancy is dominated by the biggest need of all – people say they have no alternative. The housing association said homelessness accounted for 25 of the 72 allocations in 2017-18 and 26 of the 52 tenancies in 2018-19.

Other factors include overcrowding, poor housing conditions and a need for adapted housing due to a medical condition or disability.

Interestingly, the housing association said that in the most recent scheme in Broadford they struggled to allocate all the houses. And the relatively low level of applicants for social housing in Sleat – a district which has some of the highest house prices on the island – means the association are at present minded to create a development of eight, rather than 16, houses on land they already own in Armadale.

Housing ladder

Pat Gordon Place is a recent addition to the housing portfolio in Portree.

Homes for rent account for all of the housing association’s immediate plans for development.

The right to buy is scrapped in Scotland meaning public-sector tenants cannot become owners of a house they rent – unless through one of the very few homes available on a ‘rent to buy’ basis.

In these cases, such as the scheme run by the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust, rents are typically set at a higher level than housing association or council rents, but the house is available to buy at a reduced market rate after a period of up to five years.

Curiously, however, Scottish Government-backed shared equity schemes – aimed at helping first-time buyers get on the market – have more or less ground to a halt in Skye and Lochalsh.

These houses were offered to those who might not be able to afford the full price of a home, and buyers would purchase between 60 and 75 per cent of the price – assessed on their income. The housing provider retained a ‘golden share’, which they would keep in perpetuity, in order to prevent speculation and retain the stock for the purpose it was intended.

The scheme – covering houses with a value in the region of about £120,000 to £170,000 in projects in Portree, Broadford, Armadale, Plockton and Dornie – was initially popular.

But in recent years interest has waned to the extent that, because of a lack of applicants, two Skye properties have since been lost to the open market after the original purchasers opted to move.

Such examples suggest factors such as the struggle to find a deposit, restrictions on mortgages – and perhaps a niggling suspicion that the purchase won’t represent an investment capable of generating much of a return – are as much of a deterrent to prospective buyers as the actual supply of homes themselves.

Better-paid jobs would go some way to solving that problem, though a further, much greater challenge still exists in finding a supportive housing policy to fit with the traditional settlement pattern in rural townships.

It may yet take more than numbers-based social housebuilding policies to sustain young and vibrant communities in places where crofting regulation has become an empty shell, grant schemes have fallen short of demand and where land, building and service costs are now at an all-time high.