What happens if we stop managing decline in our rural areas and instead start tacking the structural obstacles that stand in the way of building thriving local communities? This is the question journalist and campaigner Lesley Riddoch will be asking in the opening session of Rural Housing Scotland’s annual conference in Birnam on 28th February.
Depopulation figures for some areas of rural Scotland make stark reading. Highland Council projects a 21.1% population decline in Caithness by 2040, with Easter Ross and Sutherland also hitting double figures; whilst the recently released Scottish Islands Plan projects a 14% population decrease in the Western Isles over the same period.
Yet amidst the bleak landscape we see glimmers of hope which conference speakers will explore throughout the day. The Isle of Ulva is actively reversing population decline with a strategic, grass roots approach which began with a community buy out of the island in 2017. Arran Development Trust have spent time refining and developing ambitious plans to provide much needed affordable homes for local workers on the island and were recently offered support from Scottish Government’s Rural & Islands Housing Fund to the tune of £3.6 million in recognition of the importance of the project.
But this kind of grass roots community activity has been quietly making an impact for decades. The team on Colonsay who, last week, celebrated Scottish Land Fund support for affordable housing included a woman who benefitted from a previous community-led housing initiative supported by Rural Housing Scotland 20 years ago, which allowed her family to remain on the island.
In a pre-conference Community Learning Exchange, funded by the Scottish Community Alliance, delegates will visit Spittalfield in Perthshire which, back in 1993, was the first affordable collective self-build in Scotland. Here they will meet Cllr Grant Laing who, along with 11 other families, built their own homes together using Rural Home Ownership Grants.
The common element in these initiatives is the fact that they have been led by local people. People who understand the needs of their communities and how best to support them. Crucial to their success, however, has also been effective external support that has allowed communities to access the funding and expertise they need to realise their ambitions.
In its annual conference, Rural Housing Scotland will endeavor to use the experiences of communities, policy makers, funders and housing professionals to show how local people are already tackling the rural housing crisis, and to provide those who want to follow in their footsteps with a vision to help them realise their goals with sessions on community-led housing, land for housing, repopulation, and the rural economy; and the opportunity to contribute to the Scottish Government’s Housing to 2040 consultation.
In celebrating 20 years of Rural Housing Scotland, this conference will demonstrate the resourcefulness and innovation already evident in our rural areas and call for continued strategic support to build thriving rural communities which will benefit both local people and the nation as a whole.