Radical Rural Housing

In this blog, Rural Housing Scotland CEO, Derek Logie, reflects on the need to develop new approaches to solve the long-standing housing issues that are driving a youth exodus from our rural areas.

Last month, I was asked to make a presentation on rural homelessness to a conference taking place in Canada. I was stuck on how to make the speech relevant to the largely Canadian audience, until I realised that many Canadians trace their roots back to Scotland and that their ancestors left for Canada because they were made homeless during the Highland Clearances. I was struck by how the migration of people continues to be one of the main consequences of rural homelessness. But in this 21st Century Clearance, it is young people who are having to leave rural communities – not forced out in favour of flocks of sheep, but by flocks of tourists and the cash rich seeking a post-Covid rural idyll. 

They have no alternative to leaving because:

  • They can’t compete with the house prices willing to be paid by wealthy retirees
  • They can’t find anywhere to rent as more property is moved into the lucrative Airbnb market for tourists
  • They can’t find social housing – there is just half the urban level of social housing available in rural Scotland
  • Financial support to buy homes is concentrated in urban areas – scheme rules don’t fit rural circumstances
  • They are stuck living with their parents – young single people or couples living with parents aren’t counted as having housing need.

This last point means too little investment is directed towards building affordable rural housing. Despite what everyone living in rural Scotland knows – there is a desperate shortage of affordable housing. Just 9% of government funding for housing reached rural areas in 2019/20. Housing investment represented just £64.40 for every rural inhabitant, but £134.48 for every inhabitant of a town or city. 

The paltry investment in rural housing and the dearth of innovative solutions to the housing needs of young people in rural Scotland is failing them, and our rural communities. The post-Covid “escape to the country” is driving the gentrification and geriatrification of our rural communities. Rural communities face a demographic time-bomb that threatens their viability; the exodus of young people and the decline in the working age population, combined with the increase in the older population, has severe implications for the sustainability and health of rural communities. 

It could be so different if we just listened to what young people want; if we used our imaginations, thought differently about rural housing, rural communities and rural life. The housing system is broken, with house prices unaffordable to the young and those on average incomes. The development of new build housing has been monopolised by volume builders who build to minimum space and environmental standards and perpetuate the spiralling cost of housing.

We could do so much better by designating land for housing which integrates environmental and social benefits; by releasing land for community-led housing; self build; co-housing; mutual homeownership cooperatives and social housing; by creating opportunities for innovation and new forms of housing which build the community cohesion and mutual support that are vital in the post-Covid19 future. The pandemic offers the opportunity to develop new ways of living and working.

There is a clear desire amongst people to refocus on community, place, wellbeing, smaller scale and climate-friendly development. The development of housing which offers models for mutual support – such as co-housing, collective self build and mutual home ownership cooperatives – can create frameworks for these more mindful and cooperative forms of living. 

Rural areas, in particular, offer opportunities to create housing which encompasses opportunities for local food production, shared working space, renewable energy generation, community heat, mutuality and intergenerational living. Many people, particularly young people, are looking for a connection with the land, they are looking for somewhere they can grow their own, or buy local food, and they want to support local jobs and the environment.

Rural Housing Scotland have developed Smart Clachan as a model for sustainable rural development. These offer residential living with a farm-to-table focus for young, active families seeking a lifestyle centred around simplicity and sustainability. They provide affordable, community-led housing with opportunities to incorporate renewable energy, alongside a community hub, work space and vegetable growing areas, to enable people to remain/return and counter depopulation. 

Smart Clachan are being created by Comrie Croft in Perthshire and by Stòras Uibhist in South Uist: community organisations building affordable, sustainable and cooperative housing for the 21st Century, as a radical route to address the climate emergency and to support repopulation in rural Scotland.

Rural Housing Scotland is keen to chat to young people in rural communities who would be interested in working together to develop radical new approaches to housing. Please contact Derek or Kirsty at derek@ruralhousingscotland.org or kirsty@ruralhousingscotland.org or through our social media.