by Fi Thomson, Rural Wisdom Community Worker, Moray

Housing in Rural Scotland is a complex problem. Key issues such as land ownership, demographics and depopulation, holiday houses and tourism, rural enterprise and affordability were all discussed at this conference in the lovely surroundings in Birnam.  

The attendees included journalist and broadcaster, Lesley Riddoch whose talk was aptly named ‘Not Doomed to Dwindle’. She had been tasked to be challenging and controversial. She took to task the idea that rural meant managed decline and showed us examples of people power in communities such as Eigg. She outlined the fact that we need a more localised democracy with councils covering smaller populations, with examples from Norway, so that we have more say on issues such as energy policy and land and housing affordability.  

There was talk of how we need to manage the demographic time bomb in rural locations – interestingly small towns are the places struggling the most with loss of working age population according to the work of Dr Andrew Copus of the Karelia Institute, Finland. These places are also hampered by lack of appropriate affordable housing and transport which would help keep younger people in these small towns.  

Wendy Reid discussed the Isle of Ulbha just off Mull, her role as Development Manager and the problems she faced trying to encourage in- migration starting from a population of 6 down from 859 in 1841. They need to build houses and businesses (300 people have already expressed an interest), with little infrastructure. The timing is critical and difficult to manage. Chicken or egg? People first or houses first? And then there’s how to get the building materials onto the island.  

Barry Mochan, a community member of the Isle of Arran and Chairman of the Arran Development Trust (voluntary) discussed his frustration with planning and fundraising and how incredibly hard it was and how many voluntary hours must be put in. Each community starts from scratch.   

Rural communities suffer from the success of tourism. Many of the people speaking were outlining how people living in remote communities couldn’t get rental property because holiday lets were more lucrative and house prices are pushed up by the buy-to-let trend. Both on Arran and Islay there were illustrations of people leaving jobs because they had nowhere to live or were made homeless on a regular basis, yet whole villages were dark during the winter as no one lives in them full time. A thriving business like Bruichladdich Distillery is hampered by the lack of appropriate housing.

The positive message was co-housing and community-led housing. This is a growing trend in Scotland. There were examples from St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney of a group of older people getting together to build co-housing for themselves. They are nearly at the stage where they can start. The slight stumbling point is funding their shared space. Ecology Building Society are brilliant for mortgages for this sort of project so we can watch this space as this is a fantastic way to support older people in rural communities to build the housing, they want so they can remain independent for longer. 

There were also examples of community housing from Edinburgh, Ft Augustas and Arran. It looks to be a positive way forward especially as with local involvement the housing is appropriate often well built and cheaper as the developers tend to take a large profit.

Land affordability and availability was a big theme over the day, also planning transparency and the bureaucratic nightmare of Community Led Housing. Housing to 2040 has just finished its consultation stage with Scotland trying to decide how they want housing to look and feel in the future – lets hope some of it looks as diverse,  inclusive and empowering as some of the examples I saw at this conference.