LOCALS on islands in the west of Scotland are calling for protection against wealthy would-be second-home owners, currently outbidding locals for every house sale. In an open letter to Source Direct reported in this paper, young folk from the Uists, Mull, Skye and Benbecula say the lack of affordable housing is driving an economic clearance.

It’s a shameful situation tackled many times in this column, but never with the extra problem of Covid escapees forcing up prices or the extra urgency and legitimacy created by young Hebrideans demanding action themselves.

The letter-writers say the future of the islands is on a knife edge – and they’re not wrong. They make a parallel with clearances of centuries past, observing that “locals [today] are unable to buy houses in their communities and are being kept out against their will. The fabric of our Gaelic language, crofting, and communities is being unwoven”.

The main problem they’ve highlighted is holiday homes. They point out that 40% of houses on Tiree and West Harris are now second homes and suggest that when a house comes on to the market, community get first refusal or the chance of a compulsory purchase.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar welcomed their initiative, but it won’t get any help from the Scottish Government. Housing Minister Kevin Stewart told this paper that “any scheme would have to operate on a voluntary basis”. But he insists there is a package of help – councils can levy higher council tax charges on second-home owners, there are (finally) restrictions on short-term lets and £38 million’s been spent in the past three years on

island housing.

Is that good enough? Evidently not. Pots of money for affordable housing have indeed been given to councils over recent years. But there’s a stipulation the cash is drawn down by RSLs or Registered Social Landlords. Only a few RSLs operate in the Highlands and Islands and they must establish there’s a real housing need before deciding to build. But folk in sparsely populated rural areas often don’t join the single “pan-Highland” waiting list. They don’t want to be assigned a house hundreds of miles away, and since they know no local homes are available there seems no point signing up. So, when housing cash is finally available, it misses areas where no-one’s on the waiting list. Thus, the crisis of rural homelessness continues, along with the myth that young local folk don’t want to live on the land.

In most of Europe, housing is generally self-built – that doesn’t mean folk physically humping beams, bricks and mortar (though that’s pretty common on Eigg). It does mean small groups commissioning and controlling the construction of their own homes. In Norway, Germany and beyond, it’s how 60% of homes are built – in Australia it’s 80%. In the UK only 12% of homes are self-built (probably less in Scotland) thanks to a decades-long surrender to speculative volume house builders and overstretched, slow-acting social housing agencies. It’s crazy. Self-procurement was almost designed for young folk living in rural areas like the Uists and Skye. But the first insurmountable obstacle is lack of access to affordable land. The second is the vast uplift in land prices that accompanies the award of planning permission – something the Scottish Greens’ Land Value Capture proposal would have redressed if the SNP and Tories hadn’t combined last year to vote it down.

Pre-constructed, portable modular housing commissioned by community groups like the letter-writers (not just RSLs) might be a short-term solution. But we need long-term change. And that means a much closer look at the second-homes problem.

This might be controversial, but I’d humbly contend it isn’t too many second homes, it’s not enough huts.

Modest, wee wooden huts are the kind of holiday homes that predominate everywhere at our wooded latitude – from the cabins of Canada to the hytte of Norway, the stuga and sommerhus of Sweden and Finland, the dachas of Russia and the bachs of New Zealand in the southern hemisphere.

THESE holiday homes are not intended for permanent use (many have no electricity), are surplus to the existing housing stock (mostly self-built in woodlands and forests) and are therefore not robbing locals of more substantial family homes. Indeed, 10 years of a PhD comparing Scotland and Norway has shown me that where huts are the norm, there’s less demand for distant holiday homes. Hutting happens close to the first home – generally within one hour’s drive – because the objective is to be there every weekend of your life, not once in a very expensive blue moon.

Furthermore, Norwegians – with the highest rates of hut ownership in the world – have a law which ensures houses designated as permanent homes can only ever be sold as first homes – it’s the same with second homes – thus creating two separate housing markets. Essentially boplikt (duty of residence) means first homes cannot be used as holiday homes. Over 70 years it’s helped to cap housing prices for locals in remote areas, encourage holiday homers to build or buy huts near their own first homes and has stopped feelings of guilt about having holiday homes (because almost every family owns a hytte) and feelings of local anger, frustration and resentment because the huts aren’t eroding the local housing stock.

In fact, as housing academic Malcolm Combe has pointed out, restrictions can currently be imposed on land in areas of housing scarcity here, so that it cannot be sold on a purely open market basis. The land must first be offered to a designated local rural housing body, which has a right of “first refusal” before any sale can take place. But once again, that’s only open to RSLs, it takes time and it only applies to new builds.

The Hebridean and indeed the Highland, Borders and the whole rural crisis is more urgent than that.

So why doesn’t the Land Commission investigate the Norwegian boplikt system and if they approve, bring recommendations forward fast? Why doesn’t the Scottish Government and relevant councils reform the way they establish housing demand in remote areas, back a pilot scheme as the Hebridean letter-writers suggest, and stop delaying legislation to enable compulsory (land) sales orders?

If the young folk feel they’re getting nowhere, why don’t they stand candidates in May’s Holyrood elections? Meantime, though, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It’s not just the presence of holiday homes in remote areas – it’s the absence of huts across Scotland that’s driving the rural housing crisis. The answer is actually a hutting revolution with tens of thousands of modest weekend cabins located in woodlands and forests all over Scotland. This kind of holiday home would be affordable to all, kinder to the planet and more likely to become constantly visited wee hideaways, than remote island locations. Of course, there are obstacles, like the total lack of affordable land, the closed-off nature of Scotland’s woodlands and forests and the resulting belief amongst planning professionals, politicians (and perhaps ourselves) that we have no appetite for huts, owned by ourselves nestled in our own beautiful landscape.

I don’t believe that for a minute. But until we re-examine our feudal past and its “no-can-do” mindset, rural Scots will keep struggling to live at the margins, Scots will feel too guilty to demand their hutting birth-right and the broken housing market will just hirple on.

Is that what we want?

Huts, A Place Beyond is being launched by Lesley Riddoch in conversation with Andy Wightman tonight at 7pm.

YouTube link and more info via https://lesleyriddoch.com/2-uncategorised/523-huts.