No place like home

Gregor Cushnie with Mowi housing, Rum

Noemi Lorenzo-Vidaña began work as a seawater health manager and veterinarian at Mowi Scotland earlier this year. She says: “When I started my new job in aquaculture, I was very excited about the new challenge it presented, and especially because the Highlands and Islands is such a wonderful area.

“However, the biggest challenge, and most stressful, has been finding accommodation.”

Noemi and her partner have searched for months for affordable and reasonable accommodation near Fort William, without success. She is currently having to commute from Aberdeen on a weekly basis.

“The search has been very discouraging because it is affecting me not only on a personal level, but also on a professional level,” she adds. “It’s difficult to be able to put all my energy into work when my situation is so unclear. I really hope I can live and contribute to the local community very soon.”

Noemi’s case is far from exceptional. In fact, stories like hers are endemic in the Highlands and Islands, where there is a critical shortage of available, affordable housing.

Scottish salmon generates more than 2,500 jobs across the Highlands and Islands, and the sector plays a key role in attracting people to come and live and work in coastal communities, while also retaining locals to help to tackle depopulation. The shortage of housing is preventing key vacancies from being filled, and acting as a drag on the local economy.

Derek Logie, CEO of Rural Housing Scotland explains: “Young people across the countryside are unable to find somewhere affordable to live. There is much less council and social housing in rural Scotland, and demand for second homes and holiday lets is reducing the number of private lets and increasing house prices.

“In this 21st Century Clearance, it is young people who are having to leave rural communities – not forced out in favour of flocks of sheep, but by flocks of tourists and the cash-rich seeking a post-Covid rural idyll.

“They can’t compete with the house prices willing to be paid by wealthy retirees. They can’t find anywhere to rent as more property is moved into the lucrative Airbnb market for tourists. They can’t find social housing – there is just half the urban level of social housing available in rural Scotland. Financial support to buy homes is concentrated in urban areas. They are stuck living with their parents.

“The paltry investment in rural housing and the dearth of innovative solutions to the housing needs of young people in rural Scotland is failing them, and our rural communities. The post-Covid ‘escape to the country’ is driving the gentrification and geriatrification of our rural communities. Rural communities face a demographic time-bomb that threatens their viability.”

Noemi Lorenzo-Vidana

Facts and figures from Holyrood back this up. The number of second homes in Scotland has remained stable, despite an end to council tax discounts. After April 2017, local authorities were given the option to remove the council tax discount of between 10% and 50% on second homes. For 2021-22, 25 out of the 32 local authorities removed the council tax discount on second homes.

“The number of second homes (23,890) is 2% (576 homes) lower in 2021 than in 2020 and after remaining at broadly similar levels in 2019 and 2020,” stated a Scottish Government quarterly update in December 2021.

Rural house prices have also doubled over the last 20 years. Salmon Scotland, quoting statistics from the Registers of Scotland, showed average home prices in areas where salmon farms operate have risen more sharply than the national average. In Argyll and Bute, the average house price increased from £84,084 to £199,179 – a rise of 137%. In the Highlands, it climbed from £80,625 to £210,958, up 162%. In Orkney, it soared from £61,029 to £184,333, up 202%, while in Shetland it rocketed from £56,474 to £178,358, up 216%. In the Western Isles, it jumped from £52,359 to £160,941, up 207 per cent. Across Scotland as a whole, it surged from £91,139 to £202,075, up 122%.

Salmon Scotland’s Chief Executive Tavish Scott sums it all up: “The most pressing crisis facing our Highland and Island communities is the complete lack of access to available, affordable housing.”

Skye high prices

Salmon farmers are not the only employers struggling to recruit. On Skye, up to 1,700 jobs will lie vacant this year due to the home shortage, according to research published in July by the Skye Business Housing Needs survey.

More than 140 local businesses – with 78% of them involved in tourism or hospitality – responded. Two in five businesses reported having recruitment problems. One in five people employed were found to live outside Skye and Lochalsh, and one in four did not live in their own home.

The survey showed that people looking to buy “affordable” housing on Skye still had to be able to get a mortgage of between £170,000 and £200,000, and find a substantial deposit. Researchers said given average wages in the area, this is unachievable for many people.

Clare Winskill, Director of business organisation SkyeConnect, says recruitment problems are expected to get worse: “There is no confidence that the extreme recruitment issues will abate. We are looking at a significant contraction of our economy here if the rapid building of affordable housing – that will allow recruitment and retention of a workforce – does not take place.”

“Housing is the most acute logistical issue facing our farmers,” echoes Salmon Scotland’s Director of Strategic Engagement Hamish Macdonell, in his column for Fish Farmer this month. “There is no point lamenting the exodus of young people to the cities if there is no infrastructure to support them remaining in their communities; and there is no point simply congratulating companies for creating jobs, unless there are houses for the employees to live in.”

So, as local employers, what can Scotland’s aquaculture sector do to help alleviate the housing problem?

Scottish Sea Farms’ sites are located in areas where demand for housing and holiday homes is high, and the shortage of available, affordable housing is acute. The company helps new or relocating employees find available, affordable accommodation – whether to rent or buy – in its more remote locations. Whilst it does help towards relocation costs in many instances, such is the present-day demand for homes and holiday homes that many employees are being priced out of the market.

“The lack of available, affordable housing on the islands has been a real issue for many years now,” says Richard Darbyshire, Scottish Sea Farms Regional Manager for Orkney for 14 years, and now Regional Manager for its expanded Shetland region.

“The more remote you get, the harder it is to recruit and retain employees. So much so that to safeguard the long-term viability of our farm at Eday, we recently partnered with local landowners Willowstream to bring six greener homes to the island: four for the farm team, enabling them to work a two-week on/off rota instead of commuting for several hours every day, and two for visitors, be they travelling for business or pleasure.

“Whether it’s building all-new housing such as this, or renovating the many houses that lie empty to make them habitable once again, Orkney desperately needs more homes if it is to retain its younger generations and attract newcomers onto the islands.”

Scottish Sea Farms housing at Millhaefen, Eday

A foot on the ladder

One such “newcomer” is Scottish Sea Farms Fish Health & Welfare Manager Amanda Smith, originally from Aberdeen. She has worked and lived in Orkney for six years now, but without managing to secure a property of her own.

Smith says: “Both myself and my husband, who moved up from Thurso, are working full-time and earning good salaries, yet we just can’t get our first foot on the property ladder. The few homes that do become available sell incredibly quickly, often at well over the asking price, and demand for properties to rent is just as fierce.

“If it hadn’t been for Scottish Sea Farms building employee housing on Eday, then more recently the help of Orkney Housing Association Limited (OHAL), we literally wouldn’t have a roof over our heads or be able to continue living and working here.”

Scottish Sea Farms, which won an award in 2020 for its work on Eday, is exploring similar projects in other regions.

Mowi is also collaborating with rural communities to support housing developments. Nowhere is the shortage of affordable housing more acute than in island communities, it says, so, building on the success of projects built on the Isles of Muck and Rum in 2015 and 2019 respectively, the company has more recently partnered with the Colonsay Community Development Company.

On Muck, Mowi developed three houses between 2015 and 2019, providing accommodation for up to eleven Mowi farm staff, and a farm manager and family. A new pontoon was also installed and is used on a shared basis by Mowi and non-Mowi vessels.

On Rum, Mowi provided financial support for a local housing development by the Isle of Rum Development Trust, in collaboration with The Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust, that has provided office space and accommodation for Mowi staff as well as rental properties for the island.

Mowi provided the community with four fully serviced plots when building the staff houses and helped with additional financial contribution to the building of the houses. Mowi also provided 10 yacht moorings in the bay, which has brought more visitors to the island, and additional revenue to the community. One of the attractions for the new residents to Rum has been fast broadband, enabling them to move to the island and work from home. Mowi installed the fast broadband connection to the benefit of the entire island, with fibre optic installed in the village.

The island of Colonsay lies in the Inner Hebrides, just north of Islay. Colonsay Community Development Company (CCDC) has been working since 2012 to try and solve the housing issue by providing affordable homes. Historically, finding land to buy for the community to develop has always proved a major hurdle. In April 2020, after eight years of effort and with funding from Scottish Land Fund, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Argyll & Bute Council and Mowi, CCDC finally managed to procure two sites in Scalasaig; one for affordable housing which will accommodate up to 24 units, and the other for two business units.

The initial phase of development currently underway will provide two houses for low-cost home ownership, four houses for affordable rent, three discounted serviced self-build plots, and three houses for the local fish farm, operated by Mowi, to provide worker accommodation.

Dougie Hunter, Technical Director at Mowi, says: “We want our employees and their families – whether local and looking to stay, or from away and wanting to make the Highlands and Island their new home – to feel welcomed, secure and stable. These are key reasons why our company is very committed to supporting new community housing developments in the regions where we do business.”

How to fund change?

What else can be done? Salmon farmers are calling for £10m a year in licence fees to be reinvested in local communities, with a focus on affordable housing, to tackle the growing property crisis in rural Scotland. Salmon Scotland has launched a campaign to overhaul the current system so that the millions sent to Crown Estate Scotland in Edinburgh are instead directly ringfenced for coastal areas where farms operate. This would echo the system in Norway where rents are used to benefit local communities.

A recent independent review of aquaculture regulation in Scotland by Professor Russel Griggs recommended a new single licensing payment for the sector, which he said should “address community benefit as well”.

Councils are also attempting to reduce the number of empty homes. In the Western Isles, a study conducted by its council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, found in 2017 that there were 522 long-term empty properties in private ownership on the Outer Hebrides and that 231 of these were vacant for 12 months or more. It equated to 3.5% of local housing stock, more than twice the national rate of empty properties. Some areas were more affected than others: In Stornoway 4% of homes are lying empty but that rises to 8% of homes being long-term empty in the more rural areas. In 2018, the Comhairle introduced a dedicated Empty Homes Officer, to help bring long-term, privately-owned empty homes back into use.

This year Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Argyll & Bute Council joined the winners at the 11th Scottish Empty Homes Awards, which celebrate the work undertaken to bring back many of the country’s long-term empty homes. There are currently 47,333 empty houses in Scotland, of which 7,152 are in Edinburgh, 3,536 in Glasgow, 2,943 in Fife, and 2,595 in Highland, according to the Association Of Scotland’s Self-Caterers (ASSC).

The ASSC was making the case against new rules, cracking down on short-term lets, which are intended (among other things) to help open up the market for people looking to buy or rent a home.

In January 2022, MSPs passed new regulations requiring landlords to have licences for short-term lets, to tackle the growth of rentals on platforms like Airbnb in popular tourist locations like the Isle of Skye and the city of Edinburgh. Local authorities will be able to decide whether a short-term let is suitable based on density, residential amenity, and housing shortages in the area. Councils will each have to devise a licensing system for such properties by October. All short-term let properties will require a licence by 1 July 2024. Fees to apply for a licence are uncapped under the government’s plans, with individual local authorities able to set their own rate.

Another campaigner against these regulations, a voice for rural businesses Scottish Land and Estates, says it is “extremely disappointed”. Simon Ovenden, the group’s policy adviser, argues: “While we understand the need for action in some localised situations, we have constantly warned of the dangers of a one size fits all approach.

“This urban-focused licensing order [is] being imposed on rural Scotland, with evidence suggesting that the excessive bureaucracy and spiralling costs could now lead to many businesses closing with a knock-on impact to the local communities they serve. This is particularly disappointing given the significant difficulty rural businesses have faced during the last two years.”

The ASSC argues the housing challenges facing Scotland are far more multifaceted than the existence and growth of short-term and holiday lets alone. “Policymakers should not use holiday accommodation as a means to solve housing challenges in Scotland, instead focusing on building more affordable homes and tackling the scourge of empty properties,” it said.

A look at newspapers in the Highlands and Islands reveals plan after plan for new housing developments. While the housing system may be “broken”, Rural Housing Scotland’s CEO Derek Logie sees rays of hope: “We could do so much better by designating land for housing which integrates environmental and social benefits; by releasing land for community-led housing; self-build; co-housing; mutual homeownership cooperatives and social housing; by creating opportunities for innovation and new forms of housing which build the community cohesion and mutual support that are vital in the post-Covid 19 future. The pandemic offers the opportunity to develop new ways of living and working.”