The cost of Scotland’s rural and remote housing crisis: Ian McConnell

VETERAN hotelier Paddy Crerar last week, in an interview with The Herald, outlined the gravity of Scotland’s remote and rural housing crisis in the plainest of terms.

Of course, this housing shortage is not a new thing, and has sparked at times fierce debate over the decades.

However, with a surge in holiday lets fuelled by Airbnb-style rentals, and with dizzying growth in house prices across Scotland and the UK as a whole driven by protracted rock-bottom interest rates certainly not helping, the situation looks quite desperate.

And major steps must be taken to fix it, as a matter of urgency.

Mr Crerar, from a long career in the hospitality industry and having looked after hotels all over Scotland, has accumulated a deep knowledge of the housing situation in remote and rural areas.

So it is important that he is listened to when he highlights the problem and its causes, and that policymakers take a good look at how the situation might be best addressed.

Firstly, it was notable when speaking to Mr Crerar that he is firmly of the belief that the Scottish Government grasps the situation.

Mr Crerar said: “I genuinely believe the Scottish Government…really understand that we are certainly facing, in remote and rural areas, a crisis on affordable housing.”

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And he is clear about where he believes the main problem lies, in terms of hurdles to improving the supply of affordable housing for people living and working in remote and rural areas.

Mr Crerar hammered home his view that local authorities must prioritise making it easier to secure planning permission for urgently needed housing, declaring that they are in his mind “the largest barrier”.

He believes the length of time it takes for developers to secure planning permission for “even non-controversial construction projects” in remote and rural areas and the hoops they have to go through are “incredible”.

Mr Crerar declared: “The first bit that needs fixed is absolutely fixable. That is about local authorities prioritising planning as critical. [Without that], the businesses in their region will not be able to deliver on turnover, they will not be able to employ people.

“That is something local authorities need to be addressing. They may be doing that – I have not seen any evidence to give me any encouragement on it.”

Of course, such employment is crucial to the prosperity of all in remote and rural communities, which are often fragile from an economic perspective.

Mr Crerar flagged Inveraray, Mull and Glencoe, where three of his group’s seven properties are located, as the areas in which it is a major problem for staff to find accommodation. The Crerar portfolio includes the Loch Fyne Hotel & Spa in Inveraray, the Isle of Mull Hotel & Spa, and The Glencoe Inn.

The hotelier noted the group had, over a period of about 24 months before the pandemic, bought seven houses to rent to staff at affordable rates, and observed this had been crucial to the operation, for example on Mull.

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He emphasised the surge in pay levels over the last five years in the hospitality sector in making the point that the affordable housing crisis in remote and rural communities is a supply issue.

Mr Crerar declared the starting salary for a spa therapist was now about £30,000, up from between £16,000 and £17,000 five years ago, noting consumer price inflation over this period had been relatively low until the surge in recent months.

He took the example of a person in such a job having a partner employed on the food and beverage side of the hotels business, as a waiter or waitress, earning £20,000 to £24,000 for working normal hours.

Highlighting the lack of affordable houses to rent or buy, Mr Crerar said: “That is a joint income of £50,000-plus yet they can’t get anywhere. They can’t afford to live in the areas they work in. There are simply not rental properties available. To get on the housing ladder, the number of available entry-level houses in places where we have hotels is really limited.”

This is an example which really paints a picture of the scale of the crisis.

Mr Crerar also noted the salary for a head chef had risen from between £30,000 and £35,000 five years ago to £60,000, before any incentives.

While expressing dismay at some of the developments which had been allowed in Ireland, and emphasising “no one wants reckless, unfettered planning policies that allow anyone to build anything anywhere”, Mr Crerar said: “This is about allowing developers to compensate for a desperate shortage of housing for workers.”

Affordability is key here in terms of the housing that is proposed. Developments must be realistic in terms of their mix and pricing to ensure they are accessible to people living and working in the area. Rental options will suit some but it is also important that sale prices are within reach of those who want to buy and build up some equity.

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Of course, supply of housing in remote and rural areas for people living and working in them is not just down to the building of new homes, albeit this is an absolutely crucial aspect.

Mr Crerar’s comments about the number of properties acquired for holiday lets are interesting.

He notes the owners of such homes often make their money over about 14 weeks of the year, during peak holiday times.

And he highlights the knock-on effect of this on people living in these areas, if places are consequently deserted for large parts of the year.

Such a situation can make them less attractive places in which to live and work, at least for some.

There is obviously also the knock-on effect on the local economy, in terms of a lack of year-round spending for shops and other businesses.

Mr Crerar emphasised he was a “free-market person” but hammered home his belief that there should be a “bit more government intervention” when it came to the “Airbnb model”, with people having become “second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth home owners”.

The impact of people having holiday homes or one or more letting properties as a business in remote and rural parts of Scotland on the availability and cost of housing for those who live and work in these areas has long been an issue.

However, the ease with which remote owners can now through online channels find people desiring to rent houses for holidays looks to be making it even more difficult for those who want to work in these areas to find a home.

Serious consideration should be given to how to address the remote and rural housing crisis.

Of course, a balance must be struck between ensuring remote and rural communities retain their character and providing sufficient housing.

However, Mr Crerar is not talking about blighting the landscape. He is rightly emphasising the need for greater provision of housing in these areas.

There are enough challenges for remote and rural communities to tackle. And maintaining population or at least stemming decline to the maximum extent possible is crucial to the continued viability and prosperity of these places.

People in general and especially families looking to put down roots are not going to move into the area, to work in hospitality or other sectors, if it is difficult or impossible to find somewhere affordable to rent or buy.

Likewise, housing shortages will make it more likely that people who have lived in these communities all their lives, often like previous generations of their family, will decide to move elsewhere. It is a problem that must be tackled, as a matter of urgency, and Mr Crerar looks to have flagged up a couple of very good starting points.

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