LOW pay is a problem in rural areas which is why one innovative housing trust made the commitment at its inception to pay a decent wage.

The Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust (HSCHT) is a registered charity set up in 1998 to help rural communities secure long-term solutions to their housing needs. It represents a wide range of interests including communities, local government, landowners, crofters and housing associations.

Ronnie MacRae has been chief executive for eight years but says paying a fair wage was part of the trust’s ethos when he joined.

Unlike the Westminster Government’s “living wage” of £7.83 which is basically just the minimum wage and excludes those under the age of 25, the real living wage pays £8.75 to all workers, regardless of age.

MacRae said this was an important factor for the charity. “We want to put youngsters on a decent wage as we are keen to encourage them into our sector.”

He added: “This is not a particularly high wage area and transport costs are high. That is a big issue although our staff are eligible for an essential car usage payment on top of their wages if they have to use a car as part of their work. They receive a lump sum every year for using a car and so much a mile for petrol so they are not disadvantaged.”

The HSCHT has 14 staff at the moment who work in the Highlands and beyond. The charity’s work is seen as so important that it has just received funding from the Nationwide Foundation to spread its area of operation and it now covers from Glasgow and Edinburgh northwards. Paying the living wage was part of the criteria for receiving the Nationwide funding.

“Affordable housing is an issue all over the country which is why we have extended operations,” explained MacRae. “We are delivering a lot of housing and helping a lot of communities. It is extremely positive that the Scottish Government has introduced a lot of initiatives to help with that such as the Scottish Land Fund and the Rural Housing Fund. The latter is relatively new and allows communities or other developers other than housing associations to access the same sort of grant as housing associations to deliver affordable housing in rural areas. It’s a very positive fund that can complement mainstream affordable housing. The Scottish Land Fund can be used for any type of community purchase including housing.”

So far, MacRae thinks the HSCHT’s biggest achievement has been to keep rural development moving through the credit crunch. “We developed innovative schemes such as the rent-to-buy scheme (RTBS) and the £4 million Highland self-build loan fund which is now being rolled out across Scotland as a national fund,” he said. “We piloted the rent-to-buy scheme with Scottish Government providing over £7m loan finance, and it has been extremely popular and a huge boost for rural communities.”

The RTBS allows people to rent a new home for five years while saving up for a deposit. A cash-back “loyalty” sum is returned to the tenant at the end of their five-year rental period if they purchase the property. This sum is used for the deposit required to secure a traditional mortgage. Another benefit is that the house price is set at the start of the rental period. This means that if house prices increase over the five years, they will not have to pay any more and, crucially for communities, the houses are protected as affordable in perpetuity.