What strikes me every year about Rural Housing Scotland’s conference in Dunkeld and Birnum is how it brings together people with various perspectives and experiences but who have a united interest in rural housing. It is a noisy conference – people chat, and chat passionately. The challenges faced in delivering rural housing, particularly affordable rural housing, are similar and everyone is happy to share their gripes, ideas, failures, and successes.
I enjoyed the pre-conference dinner with the inspiring people from WAT IF? – a community development organisation who use wind farm community funds to invest in three small villages south of Livingstone. They have just purchased their first residential property. On my other side was a representative of Tarland Community Housing Group who is currently working with Scottish Land & Estates’ member The MacRobert Trust to deliver affordable homes in rural Aberdeenshire. Post dinner drinks with rural planners, Debbie Mackay from Savills and Richard Heggie from Urban Animation, was also interesting – will the current Planning Bill really improve the system?
The conference was a full-on day and I won’t regurgitate my full book of notes, but I’d like to share a few highlights. Full presentations are available here for those who are super-keen!
The keynote speech from Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, promoted the opportunities recent legislative changes were providing for communities. While she did recognise there are some examples of collaboration between land owners, communities and other parties, she also remarked on the ‘vast tracks of rural land, none of which is available to be used by communities’.
Not having access to land can be part of the barrier to rural housing development but it’s not alone. Scottish Land & Estates have members desperately trying to deliver the affordable homes their communities need to thrive. However, for many, issues such as economic viability, planning and infrastructure are simply proving unsurmountable. Deliverable land where planners are supportive and infrastructure connections are viable is the collective dream. Let’s have the land conversation but not to the detriment of striving to tackle the other issues.
I was delighted to hear the presentations of Derek Logie of Rural Housing Scotland, and Anna Evans and Mandy Littlewood, both of Indigo House. Derek shared research into where social housing is being delivered and how the definition of ‘rural’ was being rather stretched by Scottish Government to include places such as Inverness and Ayr. The conclusion being, that rural areas were not getting their ‘fair share’ of social housing.
Anna and Mandy presented on their research for HIE looking at the barriers to rural housing development in the Highland and Islands, and particularly how Housing Needs and Demands Assessments fail rural areas. Mandy has identified the ‘young and stuck’ – a population of young working adults who remain unable to have a home of their own.
Professor Sarah Skerratt was also, as always, most impressive as she examined the Islands Bill and the concept of ‘island proofing’ legislation, supporting the concept that we should go a stage further and introduce ‘rural-proofing’. In my recent experiences of the new residential tenancy legislation, this would certainly have been welcomed.
These presentations confirmed my belief that there is simply not enough, and in some cases, not reliable enough, data to inform rural housing policy and, therefore, the true rural picture is often not considered when legislation and policy is changed. From a private housing perspective, we have no idea how many homes are let at affordable levels. As often the key housing provider in the most rural areas, I believe it is vital we know what this supply level is and monitor how new policy changes are impacting it. One of my greatest fears is that the Scottish Government pumps £3 billion into delivering 50,000 new affordable homes which we can see are mostly being delivered in urban environment, while due to a lack of ‘rural proofing’ we lose affordable let properties from rural communities.
For another year, the Rural Housing Conference is over but the discussions and the enthusiasm for delivering rural housing will continue.
Katy Dickson, Senior Policy Officer (Property, Business and Connectivity)