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Comhairle Leaders Attend UK Islands Forum

Cllr Paul Steele, Leader, and Malcolm Burr, Chief Executive, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, travelled to Wales last week to attend the fourth UK Government Islands Forum.

UK Island Group

The event took place in Ynys Môn on 7 and 8 May, chaired by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove MP, with the agenda focused on housing issues for islands. The Islands Forum was developed as a way to encourage island collaboration on common challenges such as skills, connectivity and infrastructure, as well as exploring shared opportunities between communities.
The issues arising from the costs of purchasing or building new houses, and the percentage of vacant and second homes in the Outer Hebrides, which is significantly higher than the national average, were presented during the meeting, alongside the success of the Goathill Project, which built 74 affordable homes, 50 Houses with Extra Care and the 52-bed residential Care Home, Taigh Shiphoirt, and of the Comhairle’s work on bringing empty homes back into use.
The discussions demonstrated that island authorities throughout the UK share the same issues and difficulties with the availability and affordability of housing. It also demonstrated that with sufficient funding and policy support, local authorities can make a significant difference to the challenges faced with housing.
Reflecting on the outcomes of the Forum, Cllr Paul Steele said:

“We need to be doing a lot more to provide people with homes not just houses. Our Islands are great places to live but they’re also great places to visit and houses sold/used as second homes or self-catering holiday lets, which are needed for our tourist economy inevitably reduce market availability and distort house prices for people who want to buy a home, especially young local families. There is an absolute need for a mix of accommodation providers as they are key to our economy and often allow people the financial security to stay in our community but, as was discussed at the Forum, we really need more permanent homes.”
“It is quite reasonable, for example, to consider that where houses are treated as assets and not homes, they should be treated differently, and one of the lessons from Wales is the requirement for holiday homes to apply for a change of use through Planning. We need to be thinking differently here about Housing before the problem becomes unmanageable. Having a permanent, working population is key to addressing many of the challenges we face in the Islands. Our demographics show we have a lot of older, Gaelic speaking islanders still living in their own homes but where do the next generations live? For our islands and the Gaelic language to flourish we need to be providing the conditions where people of all ages can buy or build their own homes or at least access housing for long term rent.”
“Building new houses has also become much less affordable for individuals and housing providers in recent years;  the construction costs of a 2 bedroom house regularly come in upwards of £250,000. Higher levels of support to enable Housing is needed, for example an increase in the Croft House Grant scheme with less bureaucracy surrounding it, possibly changes to VAT in Island settings, reduced transport costs for housing materials, sectoral housing to support the economy, other options such as a revolving loan fund are some of the proposals we want to see developed with a sense of urgency. Our Islands’ cultural and economic contribution to Scotland and the United Kingdom is immense and while that’s recognised it needs to be reflected in supporting our Housing needs. It is clear that coordinated intervention is required from all levels of Government as the status quo isn’t working in the best interests of our communities.”

Malcolm Burr, who also spoke at the meeting, added:

“Rarely have I attended a meeting which showed such a high level of consensus about the importance of housing provision, the issues and challenges which face island communities, large and small, and the need for Government support for housing provision based on local conditions, needs and factors. The Comhairle has worked very well with Scottish Government and other partners in making the most of the funding opportunities available to support housing provision throughout the Western Isles and looks forward to hearing more about the contribution UK Government may be considering in this vital area.”

The Comhairle was one of seven Scottish local authorities who attended, alongside Shetland, Orkney, Argyle & Bute, Highland and North Ayrshire Council.