The role of housing in sustaining rural and remote communities

The role of housing in sustaining rural and remote communities

Recognising the role that housing plays in supporting sustainable communities and economic growth, and given the complex interplay of factors required to address the challenges of housing development, Highlands and Islands Enterprise commissioned research has recently been finalised. The full report is available from the HIE website at

The study was undertaken by Ipsos MORI in partnership with Anna Evans and Mandy Littlewood of the Indigo House Group, both specialists in housing policy, strategy and analysis.  Key findings include:

  • Across all tenures, there were 1,627 completions across the Highlands and Islands in 2016 – 187 fewer than the estimated 1,814 new properties required.   While private sector provision has fallen from a high of 2,490 units in 2007 to 1,130 in 2016, the current level of provision is more than the market demand of 742 identified across Housing Need and Demand Assessment estimates.  However, these new housing supply is largely clustered in more accessible areas close to urban areas, with far less development in fragile areas.  Affordability of private sector housing is also a considerable issue, particularly in Highland and Moray.
  • The number of affordable housing completions are well below what is required (just 46% of the estimated 1,071 affordable properties required), with significant gaps in some areas including Shetland, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Moray.  Financial constraints and viability issues are a key consideration for the deliverability of SHIPs, particularly in fragile areas.
  • There is considerable pressure in many areas where young people are more commonly stuck and unable to form households, facing higher average house prices with lower average incomes.  These are commonly fragile areas or tourist destinations with very high numbers of second homes, creating tension between supporting the tourism sector and providing affordable accommodation for young people and families wishing to live and work in the region. In many areas, business development and expansion is also adversely affected by the lack of affordable accommodation for workers.
  • Current Housing Need and Demand Assessment methods are not fine-grained enough to provide insights below the Housing Market Area level, therefore obscuring the needs of smaller, fragile communities.  Targets tend to be based on estimates of past trends and what can be achieved given constraints, rather than what is needed or aspirations.
  • Public housing policy is currently focused on increasing affordable housing supply, with the Scottish Government committing a record level of resources. However, the scale of the gap between housing need, demand and supply indicates the need for even more, or different positive action and intervention across tenures.  While the Rural Housing and Islands Funds, the Self-build Loan Fund and Croft House Grant scheme are directed towards smaller rural and remote communities, policy and new interventions around infrastructure appear to be better suited to urban areas.
  • A number of overlapping barriers, constraints and opportunities were identified through the research as follows:
  1. Access to land (that is ‘effective’ and can be built on without considerable risk);
  2. Infrastructure costs and barriers and the burden of regulation through planning permission and building regulations, with conservation issues being a ‘special case’;
  3. Organisational disconnects and friction;
  4. Limited building capacity;
  5. Innovations – in building methods and approaches and funding.
  • Supply of credible, effective land is in short and decreasing supply, and the risks and costs to enable viable development (such as infrastructure requirements, planning costs, building and road construction regulatory burdens and upfront capital payment for utilities) are often too great without intervention, especially in more rural and remote environments.  There is rigid application of regulations with little flexibility, and these constraints, exacerbated by lack of economies of scale means the risks are often too great for private developers to supply in rural and remote areas.
  • In many fragile areas, community initiative and leadership is often the catalyst for new housing supply.  This has been supported in many communities by enabling third sector organisations.  However, the processes can be complex and time consuming, and the resource of communities and enabling organisations are spread very thinly.  Further investment in these types of activities and simplification of application processes will be critical in encouraging community-led development in fragile areas.
  • Intervention needs strategic oversight of housing development.  The Highland Housing Hub is one exemplar model of this, showing what can be achieved with very intense collaborative working.
  • The public sector finance context means that there is currently little scope to allow ‘speculation’ in the public sector to drive private sector investment.  This means that ‘riskier’ innovations may need additional resource or special policy provisions if the gap between housing demand, need and supply is to be met.

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