A new Highlands and Islands housing authority is being called for to help tackle a crisis facing people across the region who are priced out of the market.
Access to affordable housing is one of the biggest issues affecting the area and attempts to retain and increase the population.
It is also hampering efforts by businesses to hold or recruit staff, with many workers unable to take up posts because they can’t find accommodation.
The problem has been exacerbated by housing being snapped up for second and holiday homes which is forcing up prices.
What is being proposed?
Now Professor Jim Hunter, a former chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), has suggested setting up a new housing authority charged with building thousands of new homes.
Writing in the Press and Journal, Prof Hunter says “nothing is more desperately needed” today than action to solve the housing crisis.
He suggests the new body should have the ability to acquire land at the lowest price.
It could even have the right to take ownership of up to one per cent of properties with more than 500 acres.
This could involve private, community and public sector landowners who would be paid compensation for land used for housing.
Rents would be similar to those charged by councils or housing associations and secure occupancy would be guaranteed, he says.
Tenants could later buy their property, but no housing authority homes could be taken out of local use, preventing them from becoming second or holiday homes.
Prof Hunter suggests the authority will need a budget of hundreds of millions of pounds. Funding from the government could be supplemented by borrowing against future rental income.
“Like the new town corporations that, back in the 1940s and 1950s, built towns like Cumbernauld and Glenrothes, a Highlands and Islands Housing Authority might invest in a range of homes and small apartment blocks.
“And as in the freeports now under consideration, planning controls might be modified to ensure that housing authority developments couldn’t be held up for more than weeks.
Young people should get housing priority
He said initially the authority could concentrate on the west and north coasts, the Hebrides and Northern Isles, with younger people given priority.
Three areas of the Highlands and Islands are being earmarked by the Scottish Government as ‘repopulation zones’ to help tackle people loss.
Action would be focused on the Outer Hebrides, Caithness and Sutherland and Argyll and the Isles, with housing on top of the agenda.
Prof Hunter argues there is precedent in using special measures to respond to Highlands and Islands issues.
This includes legislation in 1886 that ended the Highland Clearances by granting crofters security of tenure, in 1919 to help build new crofts, in 1943 to create the Hydro Board, and in 1966 to establish the Highlands and Islands Development Board, now HIE.
“What was done in 1886, 1919, 1943 and 1966 was done by Liberal, Conservative and Labour politicians.
“Time perhaps for the SNP ministers who have been in charge at Holyrood since 2007 to bring something of that same commitment to the business of bettering conditions in the north.”
Last week the Federation of Small Businesses called for investment in affordable housing as a part of a range of measures needed to help Highlands and Islands communities.
It said without action, the region faces becoming “glorified retirement communities”.
Lack of housing hampering workers
Earlier this year a study by The Mull and Iona Community Trust said housing is needed for at least 260 staff across the islands which is hampering the economy.
Research by SkyeConnect showed between 1,300-1,700 job vacancies in Skye are going unfilled because workers can’t find accommodation.
And a Lochaber Chamber of Commerce survey found 66% of businesses have experienced problems in recruiting or retaining staff.
The Lochaber housing crisis is so bad that key workers are forced to sleep in vans and hotel owners are giving up guest rooms to staff.
Last year Highland councillors also supported plans to limit the number of short-term lets in communities.
The Scottish Government said it is working with partners to deliver affordable homes across the Highlands and Islands and the rest of Scotland.
A spokesman said: “We are now delivering against our commitment of 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which at least 70% will be for social rent and 10% in remote, rural and island communities.
“We are also developing a Remote, Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan to bolster this work.”
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[Could a Highlands and Islands housing authority fix homes crisis?]