BUSINESSES in the Highlands are raising concerns about the pressure that a lack of housing is having on their ability to recruit and retain staff.

The issue has gotten so bad that a business group in Lochaber has begun a Housing Needs Survey that is asking employers of all sizes what issues they face so that the results can be taken to policymakers.

While there are hundreds of new homes being built across the area every year, the needs of employers and locals are much greater.

When I finished studying journalism at university I took a job at the Lochaber Times, the local paper based in Fort William and covering an area roughly the same size as the Central Belt.

Moving to the Highlands from Glasgow really excited me and working for a local newspaper gave me the opportunity to learn much more about one of Scotland’s most beautiful areas.

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However, the realities of living in the Highlands soon caught up to me. Apart from the rain and routinely getting stuck behind queues of caravans, my big headache was finding somewhere to live.

Lochaber is a tourist hot spot and celebrated as the “Outdoor Capital of the UK” due to an abundance of outdoor pursuits. Tourism businesses do well in the area, but the rapid proliferation of short-term letting through services like Airbnb has meant that homes for local people and those looking to move to the area are slim on the ground.

I recently spoke with Highland councillor Ben Thompson (below) about the issue of housing which is having knock-on effects on the abilities of employers to expand their businesses.

A councillor for the Caol and Mallaig ward, Thompson grew up in the Highlands and runs the Fort William bike shop Nevis Cycles.

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He said: “Across the tourist hot spots of the Highlands there is very high demand for housing and we can see that on the Highland Housing Register. Particularly in an area like Caol, which is sometimes known as ‘Scotland’s largest village’ since 3000 people live there. There are currently 600 people looking for social housing in Caol. That’s a lot of demand.

“There are several hundred new houses either under construction, just built or going to be built at the moment, but that still won’t meet the demand.

“There is demand that we can see, which is people currently on the Housing Register, but there’s also hidden demand.”

This hidden demand that Thompson mentions is people that don’t see the point in putting their name on the Housing Register due to the number of people already on it.

 Thompson added: "For years businesses have been saying that they can't find houses for new staff to move into. I've heard major employers say that if they want to employ new staff then they don't know if that person will be able to come.

"If someone is middle management at a large company there might be a certain style of house they are looking for but in tourist hot spots in the Highlands, that might cost them half a million pounds and somewhere that doesn't have quite the same tourist pressure it would cost £300,000. That's the issue."

I was one of the people looking for private rental accommodation and was lucky enough to be able to live with family before finding somewhere to stay, but many people who want to work in the Highlands do not have this luxury. So I decided to take a look at what the property market is like now.

What are the issues?

Nowadays, most people looking to find a new place to stay will turn to property websites and apps such as Rightmove or Zoopla.

A quick look at properties for rent in Lochaber will turn up zero results, not great for someone potentially uprooting their life from elsewhere in Scotland, the UK or from around the world.

Among properties for sale, there are a handful of reasonably priced houses and flats between £135,000 and £200,000 for two to four-bedroom properties.

These are mainly located in the wider Fort William area with the main residential areas being Caol, Inverlochy, Upper Achintore and Corpach.

However, there are also an equal number of properties for sale for more than £300,000, a few for around £700,000 and one on the market for offers over £2 million.

Most listings on these sites are for plots of land on which people would be able to build a home, but these are also open to prospective short-term let operators who may want to create a pod development.

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Among the more notable listings available in the area include a 10-bedroom former “lodge and activity centre” (above) on the market for offers over £225,000, a one-bedroom “detached villa” (below), actually a former telephone exchange, on the market for £15,000.

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All of the more affordable properties require a great deal of renovation before they can get anywhere near becoming a home. The other option is to buy or rent a static caravan in one of the caravan parks.

Not exactly a great market for young people looking to buy their first home in the area or those looking to move their life to the Highlands.

How do you find somewhere to stay?

When I moved to Lochaber, I was living with family at a home in the village of Kinlochleven – a hidden gem of the Highlands but a 50-minute drive from Fort William where the newspaper office was based.

This wasn’t ideal, but it was at least somewhere to live while incessantly searching for a place of my own.

Daily checks of popular property apps turned up nothing to rent and buying wasn’t an option for me at the time which led me to find a rental option on Gumtree.

The apartment I eventually found after more than a month of searching, was a converted garage that was part of a former bed and breakfast.

Looking on Gumtree now two results turned up in the Lochaber area. One is for a three-bedroom house for long-term rent in Fort William – a great option considering this is the main employment hub but likely to be highly competitive.

The other property is a two-bedroom house for rent in Kinlochleven, posted 372 days ago.

What seems to be a preferred option for many people unfamiliar with Lochaber is finding somewhere to stay through Facebook pages as local people generally have the inside scoop on rooms available.

I still keep up with the Buy, Sell, Swap Lochaber and Property For Sale Or Rent – Lochaber pages and there are frequently posts of people who are moving to the area and looking for somewhere to live. Local people are very helpful but it is to provide a room for a short time or in providing details of rooms to rent rather than full properties.

What is being done to combat this issue?

These issues are leading to local employers getting frustrated about the lack of housing available to prospective new staff and meaning that expanding their businesses is becoming tricky.

The Lochaber Chamber of Commerce is conducting a Housing Needs Survey with its members that include major employers in the area such as BSW Timber, Mowi and Alvance Aluminium as well as many smaller ones such as Nevis Range and Scottish Sea Farms.

The survey is looking to see what the struggles are for employers to retain staff as a result of poor housing provisions.

READ MORE: Lesley Riddoch: Do the SNP or Greens have the will to tackle Highland housing crisis?

Frazer Coupland, CEO of Lochaber Chamber of Commerce said: “Lochaber Chamber of Commerce continually aims to support our member businesses, helping them thrive and supporting them to reach their full potential.

“It has been reported to us by many of our members that the shortage of housing is causing real concerns amongst many businesses and is having a negative impact on their recruitment and retention strategies.

“We have therefore decided to undertake a housing needs analysis amongst all businesses in Lochaber so that we can establish some hard data, which we hope will be accepted by policymakers and on which future strategies can be based.”

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The Housing Needs Survey is expected to report some initial results soon to encourage more people to respond and a wider piece of work will then show the housing needs in the area to the local authority.

Thompson said that the Scottish Government has provided a lot of support to housing associations and via the More Homes Inverness division which looks to create affordable housing in the Highlands and Moray.