AN open letter signed by residents of the Scottish Highlands and Islands has called on the government to bring in legislation preventing new “economic clearances”.

Citing “widespread and urgent” issues in housing in Scotland’s more remote areas, the signatories propose locals be given first refusal on houses up for sale, before they go to the national market.

The majority of those who signed the open letter are based on the Uists, with others coming from Skye, Argyll, Mull, and Benbecula.

They say that the Uists may be a good place for a trial of their proposed scheme, writing: “A recent example of a house in Uist becoming available for rental shows the scope for positive action.

“The owner agreed that the house should first be advertised to young locals, and a number of applications were received.

READ MORE: New Scottish model could revolutionise unbalanced housing sector post-virus

“They seized this opportunity to invest in the community by offering the house to a returning young couple with 3 children.

“This is exemplary of the significant impact one house can have on a small community – if only this was more widespread.”

The situation in the Outer Hebrides is described as being on a “knife-edge”, with around 40% of the homes on Tiree and West Harris already being holiday homes.

They add: “Part-time residencies do not sustain our communities and we should therefore ensure that houses are bought with the intention of being a primary residency.

“The fabric of our Gaelic language, our crofting, and our Highland and Island communities is being unwoven.

“Inaction will allow this economic clearance to be consolidated in history.”

Scottish Green Highland and Island MSP John Finnie (below) accepted that tourism was vital to the community, but warned it risked going too far.

The National: john finnie, recent pic taken 2015

He said: “Tourism is vital to Scotland’s islands, but the scale of second homes and the short-term let sector has not helped communities like those in the Western Isles.

“The boom of holiday homes in recent years has put a lot of pressure on housing provision right across the Highlands and islands, contributing to soaring rents.”

A 2019 report from UK estate agency Your Move found that the Highlands and Islands were the most expensive places to rent in the whole of Scotland, having overtaken Edinburgh and the Lothians in 2018.

Property website Rightmove says the average house price in that area is now £177,902, having risen by 8% from its 2017 peak.

“There needs to be a new approach to housing which takes in all aspects of building sustainable communities, such as access to services and amenities for the people who live and work there,” Finnie said.

Scotland’s Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart, ultimately rejected the proposals, saying any scheme would have to operate on a voluntary basis, “as the way in which an owner chooses to market their property is a matter entirely for them”.

“However we remain committed to affordable local housing solutions that allow people to stay, live and work in their communities,” he added.

The National: Housing Minister Kevin Stewart MSP pictured in Govanhill  Photo: Colin Mearns

Stewart (above) said his Government had already committed to “record levels of investment” in a bid to retain people in the country’s most remote communities.

He said: “We recognise good quality, affordable housing is essential to help attract and retain people in Scotland’s remote rural and island communities. That is why we have committed record levels of investment as part of our commitment to deliver 50,000 affordable homes.

READ MORE: Isle of Rum appeals for people to move into new eco-homes

“Over 4800 affordable homes delivered in rural and islands areas and we have spent over £38 million over the first three years of this Parliament on affordable housing across the islands delivering homes on Islay, Iona, Skye, Orkney, Shetland, and Lewis, and last year homes were delivered on Mull, Raasay and Barra among others. We have also approved and started homes on Arran.”

“Housing supply particularly in the private sector can be impacted in some areas by pressure for holiday homes. This is why since 2013 councils have had discretion to reduce or remove the Council tax discount on second homes either within their entire area or areas where they identify a particular issue.”

He also stressed that a package of measures that will enable local authorities to put in place additional controls on short-term let had been announced in January this year.