PRESSURES on housing in the Highlands have been seen to inhibit the ability of businesses to recruit new staff, but solutions are being explored that look to address this need and will hopefully be applicable across the region.

A recent business housing demand survey from 56 Degree Insight found that 68% of firms stated that the lack of affordable housing has affected their ability to recruit new staff, and 39% indicated it was having a "major impact".

Affordable options for local people

Sam Faircliff, the managing director of the Cairngorm Brewery, told The National that options for staff on salaries of £35,000 per year and above are not available in Aviemore, where their operations are based.

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Faircliff, who is also vice-chair of the Highland Tourism community interest company, said: "Social housing is not solving the problem for key workers.

"The lack of housing that is affordable is the challenge we face – it is stopping people coming here for jobs; families who are not in the lower bracket earning ie over £35k per anum still can’t find housing to either buy or rent."

The National: Sam Faircliff is managing director of Cairngorm BrewerySam Faircliff is managing director of Cairngorm Brewery

She suggested that there should be a provision in social housing for local people on lower incomes who work in the area to allow them to get higher up the list by allocating more points based on their needs and taking into account the pressures of housing in areas like Aviemore.

This would need a considered examination as Faircliff notes that there would be a "potential loophole" where someone could "start a job with a local company, get allocated a house as a key worker but then leave the job but still get to keep the property".

Social housing tenants have special protections from eviction which could lead to abuse of the system if workers in areas with particular housing pressures are handed additional points to push them up the ladder.

Faircliff added: "It is actually more mid-market rental properties that need to be considered not just forcing developers to increase the percentage of social housing to be built.  This does not solve the problem and puts developers off building at all as the open market properties are then more expensive to subsidise social housing and only affordable to second homeowners."

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Mid-market rental properties are a form of affordable housing where the rent is generally lower than the average open market level, but more than social housing. The levels are controlled through housing providers rather than private landlords.

While areas like Aviemore, Fort William and Skye have significant pressures from tourism, other areas of the Highlands do not have the same level of interest.

It means that a "one size fits all" approach to housing cannot be implemented for an area like the Highlands with specific needs required for different areas.

The Communities Housing Trust (CHT) works to build sustainable rural communities across the Highlands and has helped to deliver a mixed development in Staffin on the Isle of Skye.

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Staffin remains a crofting community despite an ageing and falling population so the development had to take account of the needs of the community, providing six homes and two commercial units for rent - including a workshop space and a new health centre for NHS Highland, to replace the existing building which is unfit for purpose.

The homes are a mix of social rent through Lochalsh & Skye Housing Association, community rent through Staffin Community Trust, and discounted sales through CHT.

The solution being developed to address needs across the region

Now, CHT is looking to go further with the development of a scaled-up version of this community-focused project that looks to deliver 80 housing units in Aviemore with a mix of tenures that will suit the needs of the community. It is hoped that this will then serve as a template for areas facing housing pressure across rural Scotland.

The project is being delivered by the Cairngorm Business Partnership (CBP) with money obtained through Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for a research study into models for the development.

Ronnie MacRae is CHT's CEO and told The National that there needs to be more of a focus on "essential worker" housing which he suggests should be redefined.

The National: Ronnie MacRae, CEO of Communities Housing Trust, with two awards for developmentsRonnie MacRae, CEO of Communities Housing Trust, with two awards for developments

He said: "From a community perspective, everyone's an essential worker.

"If you go to Applecross, employees for the hotel are every bit as essential to the local economy as workers for the likes of BSW Timber and Mowi.

"It's about workers that are needed to keep the social and economic fabric of the community sustainable."

In terms of creating a workable solution to housing issues, MacRae said that there is a need to provide social housing that has a focus on decreasing homelessness, but the Scottish Government has provided a mechanism for communities to develop themselves which has a different allocations policy.

The Staffin development has two homes for social housing allocated to the housing association, but two homes built o the same standards are allocated through the community, meaning that they are able to allocate more flexibly and target local needs.

"It's a good way of making projects stack up," MacRae said. "The housing association would not have been able to build these homes on their own and neither would the community. We as the CHT also provided two homes for low-cost homeownership with a flexible allocation policy that was decided on by the community.

"The six homes provided enough scale to make the project viable. If any of the three of us tried to do it independently, it would have been extremely difficult to make two houses on their own viable."

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MacRae is clear that all communities need choice in housing tenure and that's what is being proposed through the Aviemore development, which will have several different tenures available such as community-led social housing, mid-market rentals, affordable housing to buy, self-build options and provisions for temporary housing to accommodate transient workers.

This method helps to derisk the project because building 80 social housing units is not a viable option for somewhere like Aviemore, as locals are looking for more options and many will not qualify.

Putting the measures of selling or renting most of these properties in the hands of a trust or housing agency means they have the ability to be allocated to the needs of the community and keep the prices affordable.

Mark Tate, CBP chief executive, spoke about the development at the Highland Housing summit in November, a pilot of four homes which will be available in a few months.

He said: “The lack of affordable homes for people who want to work in, live in and care for the national park, has long been a problem.

"This past summer it has severely impacted business recovery.

"This pilot clearly demonstrates that businesses are prepared to make a contribution to help alleviate the problem and ensure new mid market rent housing is available for people working locally.”

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A council spokesperson said: "The new homes will be allocated on a pre-agreed criteria which will include local employment criteria. This will ensure a fair and transparent allocation process.  The first four homes in Aviemore will be ready for occupation in the spring of 2022."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government are developing a Remote, Rural & Islands Housing Action Plan to ensure we meet the housing needs and retain and attract people to those communities.

"This is part of our commitment to deliver 110,000 affordable homes across Scotland by 2032, with at least 70% of these available for social rent and 10% in our remote, rural and island communities. "