World Habitat Day: Housing For All – A Better *Rural* Future

The theme for the United Nations World Habitat Day 2020 is Housing for All: A Better Urban Future. We wholeheartedly agree that housing is a human right and a catalyst for all other fundamental rights. We’ve just tweaked the theme a wee bit to argue that Housing for All as vital to a Better Rural Future too.

This week Shelter Scotland launched the Build Scotland’s Future campaign calling for the construction of social homes to provide the security and stability of a home for all, and to provide an economic stimulus. We agree and in June called for a programme of 10,000 homes in rural Scotland over the next five years.

The development of affordable housing in rural Scotland is a somewhat niche activity, a Cinderella always losing out to the needs of our bigger and perhaps uglier sisters in urban Scotland. The Scottish Government have an ambition to build 50,000 affordable homes by 2021 and have invested billions to achieve this. But how many of these 50,000 will be in rural Scotland which comprises 98% of the land of Scotland and where 17% of the population of the country live?

Definitely not 8,500 which would be a fair share. In the last year we have figures for, just 12% of homes funded by the Scottish Government were built in rural Scotland. And rural Scotland has much less affordable housing in the first place – just 13% of homes are social rented- about half the urban level. This dearth of social housing and lack of investment in new housing are key drivers of rural depopulation – driving young people away from their home communities because they cant find affordable homes to rent and buy.

Recent research from the James Hutton Institute showed that island and rural communities are facing a demographic time bomb which threatens their sustainability. There is a projected decline in the rural population, mostly from within the working age population and an increase in the proportion of older people. The young people who need rural homes have jobs but cant afford housing in their local communities and their only option is to remain living in the parental home. For many young people, particularly those who from the LGBTQ+ community, this is not an option. These ‘young and stuck’ eventually vote with their feet and leave rural communities.


The Knoydart Foundation started with five houses in poor condition after the community buy-out of the estate. They now have 11 rental properties and have developed shared equity and buy-back schemes which are helping to tackle local housing need.

Read more about Knoydart

Apparently in the midst of this pandemic more and more people are looking to ‘escape’ to the countryside to find space and calm and to somehow escape COVID. The ‘new normal’ of working at home has led to the rise of ‘Zoom Towns’ as people flee the city and set up home offices in the countryside. And whilst we are eager to extol the advantages of remote working, this new pressure on rural housing markets is exacerbating the already significant challenge for those needing rural housing to find anything affordable.

Alongside competition from those seeking the good life, young people hoping to set up home in rural Scotland also need to compete with second homes, holiday homes and retirees with much deeper pockets.

However its not all doom and gloom there are glimmers of hope and light coming from the work of community landowners in rural Scotland. Community ownership of land has been the catalyst for the development of much needed affordable housing across rural Scotland. Land reform which gathered political momentum in Scotland in the 1990’s and again over the last 10 years has seen landed estates and islands across Scotland brought into community ownership. Community landowners have subsequently released land for housing associations to build social homes, built affordable homes themselves, and sold or given plots to local people to build their own homes. And not just communities purchasing large estates or island, some communities have just purchased land specifically for the development of housing – using funds from the Scottish Land Fund to buy land.


Fort Augustus and Glenmoriston Community Company used support from the Scottish Land Fund to take ownership of a modest piece of ground at the edge of the village. They are using this land to build 12 new affordable rental homes to meet 50% of the housing need they identified in the area.

Read more about Fort Augustus and Glenmoriston

Small community organisations are stepping up but cant meet the challenge to build a better rural future themselves. They need national and local government, housing associations and the private sector to play their part. Post-COVID planning offers an opportunity for renewal, to build Scotland’s future and roll out a programme of house construction across rural Scotland, working with rural communities to deliver the housing they need.

To Build a Better Rural Future requires:

  • a programme of 10,000 homes in rural Scotland over the next five years;
  • the establishment of a national land banking agency to secure land for housing – purchasing land at current use value and engaging with local communities to ensure land is acquired in the best location;
  • the priority development of homes in areas of depopulation to enable young people to remain and enable the settlement of those looking for a more rural life post COVID;
  • the creation of a national building company to deliver rural homes at scale – working with local communities to build what’s needed, where its needed and transferring ownership of finished homes to local trusts;
  • the development of a facility to manufacture cross laminated timber homes at scale with standard kits customised to meet local circumstances/venacular – with passivhaus as standard to meet climate change targets and tackle rural fuel poverty;
  • dedicated support for rural communities and community landowners to take forward creative solutions to local housing need.