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Alastair is the former Chief Executive of Scottish Churches Housing Action, which mobilises the churches in working towards a Scotland free of homelessness. He has been a board member of Rural Housing Scotland from its inception in 2001 and was previously a member of the Rural Forum Housing Service Committee. His background is in community development and homelessness activism, working in the past for Rochdale Council in Lancashire and Edinburgh Council for the Single Homeless. He sees community engagement as crucial in tackling Scotland’s problems of homelessness and inadequate housing.
I grew up in rural Stirlingshire, just north of Glasgow; I’ve lived in towns and cities ever since, but going to a primary school with fewer than 30 on the roll leaves its mark. My dad’s job took the family to Kenya when I was 14; I returned to the UK to study law at Canterbury, lived in Germany for a couple of years, and then stumbled my way into community development work in my mid-20s. I don’t think anyone grows up with an ambition to be a neighbourhood worker, but that was my first career step. In the meantime, I had worked in industrial relations for an asbestos manufacturer.
I got involved in homelessness as a community worker in Rochdale, Lancashire. The estate I covered was described by the council as ‘hard to let’. That was because it was a bit of a slum and very unpopular, so the people who moved there were those with least choice. Many of them were young single people with difficult family backgrounds. Some of them settled in OK, but many didn’t. I remember one lad who moved into his flat with nothing. Neighbours sorted him out with some bedding and pots and pans and things, but one day when I visited, he wasn’t there. It turned out he had stuck the keys through the letterbox and moved on; we never saw him again.
So that got me thinking about the importance of community and belonging and how we needed to offer more than just a roof over someone’s head.
I moved back to Scotland in 1985, when our first child was a year old, to work in homelessness in Edinburgh. Much of what I saw was very different from the estate in Rochdale – older people in the city centre with issues with alcohol and mental illness. But the underlying issues of no home, no roots, no strong community remained.
Rural homelessness is different again: much more likely to be hidden, just a part of life that adults live with their parents or in temporary arrangements – whatever’s available. Very often people don’t see that as homelessness, it’s just ‘the way things are’: and they’d never dream of going on the council homelessness list. And of course a lot of rural homelessness gets displaced – people go to the towns and cities because there are at least some services there.
I got involved in Rural Housing Scotland because by the mid-90s I worked for a churches’ housing organisation, and of course the churches have a presence in rural areas that many other national institutions no longer have. Derek and I worked together with a few others to set up an independent charity that would highlight the scandal of affordable housing shortage in rural Scotland, and help communities to tackle it. Raymond Young, our founding convener, was a great activist: he had worked at a high level with Scottish Homes, which then became Communities Scotland, and had vast knowledge and great contacts.
The shame is that the issues we’re facing today are so similar to those 22 years ago when RHS was launched: lack of affordable housing supply; insufficient support to communities; complicated planning and funding arrangements; cost yardsticks that just don’t recognise the extra costs of building small-scale in rural areas. We haven’t done enough to support innovative solutions based on locally-sourced materials, off-site construction, and local labour.
Having said that, we have seen great examples of the difference community ownership and engagement can make – on Gigha, Iona, Ulva Ferry and many other places. The effort put in by local people to make these things happen is an inspiration, and we see how a few new homes can make a huge difference to the community as a whole, helping with jobs, keeping schools open, keeping younger people and their families in the neighbourhood.
There is no one solution to the varied needs; we need different golf clubs in our trolley. Smart Clachan is a great approach, building community and shared resources into the housing development. We need to tie together the different strands that housing touches: community cohesion, employment, transport, infrastructure such as broadband and sewerage, the climate emergency. We need to recognise that living in remote and island communities isn’t an aberration: it’s a way of life that should not have to constantly justify itself to city-based decision-makers. We see more young people wanting to return to the place they grew up after going away for work or study. They need good homes, in a living community.