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March 7th 2023

Salmon sector can solve Scotland's rural housing crisis

Last Christmas, 27 of the 44 houses on Harbour Street in Plockton were empty.

The village made famous by the Hamish Macbeth TV series was somewhat "quieter than usual", the local newspaper noted at the turn of the year.

Plockton, on the shores of Loch Carron, has a high number of holiday homes and second homes - something the local community council has repeatedly highlighted.

It's a situation replicated in towns and villages across the Highlands and islands.

But the housing crisis in rural Scotland is not just down to the region's popularity with second homeowners.

There is also a problem with vacant properties.

According to research by money.co.uk, using Scottish Government data, the Western Isles has the highest proportion of empty homes in the UK at 13.3 per cent.

That's 2,000 empty homes from a total of just 15,000 dwellings.

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan said in January that the isles are in the grip of a "real housing crisis", highlighting the complex mix of issues causing this.

The research found that Argyll and Bute is not far behind on 10.4 per cent, followed by Orkney and Shetland on 9.1 per cent.

In fact, Scottish towns and villages occupy the top of the list - and you have to look down as far as 16th place before an English location - Blackpool - appears.

Last year, the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and Salmon Scotland made a joint call for vacant properties to be brought back in to use to tackle the rural housing crisis in Shetland.

We urged Shetland Islands Council and other local authorities to explore more ways to bring homes back in to use.

But as Alasdair Allan rightly identified, this problem doesn't tell the whole story either.

That's because house price rises in rural and coastal communities have soared above the Scottish average.

Registers of Scotland data analysed by Salmon Scotland shows that while prices across Scotland rose by 89 per cent in 2022 compared to the 2004 baseline, the increase was as high as 168 per cent in some remote areas.

The figures were above the national average in Argyll and Bute, the Highlands, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

So we have a toxic mix of unaffordable homes and empty homes, while those that are available are snapped up by investors.

Why does this matter?

Because the impact of a lack of affordable housing cannot be underestimated - it means not being able to live near where you work, and it separates families and contributes to the depopulation of our island communities.

And it's holding these communities back.

In many remote parts of Scotland, salmon farms are vital to the future of local businesses and communities.

That's why we are so determined to improve housing availability so that we can provide sustainable growth in the areas where we farm.

Already, our member companies are doing their bit.

They have invested in providing accommodation to colleagues so that they can stay in, or move to, the area to perform their roles and contribute to the local economy all year round.

Currently, there are over 61 properties either owned or rented by our farming companies which, between them, provide accommodation for more than 130 colleagues in Eday in Orkney, in Tarbert on Harris, across Sutherland and the Uists to Mull, Ullapool and Applecross.

Scottish Sea Farms has helped to provide housing for colleagues for over 15 years. The company currently has 21 properties to assist with living in rural and remote parts of Scotland.

Bakkafrost Scotland has provided accommodation for some of their staff for many years.

The company owns 15 properties from Harris to Mull with several properties in the Strathcarron area, and it currently provides accommodation for 32 employees and their families.

As well as providing their own staff accommodation, including on Muck and Rum, Mowi has been part of a ten year battle to secure more homes on Colonsay.

The ground has recently been cut on a £2.4 million development to build 24 homes funded by Mowi, Scottish Government Land Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Argyll & Bute Council, along with the hard work of the community including progressive and dedicated landowners and spearheaded by Colonsay Community Development Company.

Loch Duart has invested in Sutherland and the Western Isles for over 20 years, while Wester Ross Salmon provides accommodation for up to 19 colleagues.

And Cooke Aquaculture owns seven properties which have provided accommodation for families and colleagues across sea and freshwater sites in Orkney, Shetland, Argyll and Bute and the mainland for many years.

Salmon worker Norman Peace knows only too well the housing problems affecting island life.

Norman moved to Stronsay from Orkney's Mainland with Cooke Aquaculture Scotland helping provide a four-bedroom house when he was promoted to a new role.

"The lack of housing affects a lot of the islands," he said.

"Young people leave to go to university or get a job elsewhere. With the younger ones moving, most of the islands in Orkney are ageing."

Salmon farmers also use rentals, B&Bs and hotels which contribute to the local economy all year round.

So our member companies are really doing their best to tackle the housing crisis.

But we have an idea that will really tackle this emergency for other local people.

We want £10 million of the money paid by salmon farmers in government rents to be ringfenced for direct investment in rural housing.

At present, millions of pounds paid by salmon farming companies go to the Crown Estate Scotland - the property company which manages the coastal seabed on behalf of the Scottish Government.

We believe the money should be invested directly in coastal communities.

Last year's independent review of aquaculture regulation in Scotland by Professor Russel Griggs recommended a new single licencing payment for the sector, which he said should "address community benefit as well".

There should be no more delays.

We know that working families understand the contribution of aquaculture to our coastal communities.

Let's harness the transformational impact of our sector to tackle the housing crisis and unlock the potential for the Highlands and islands to become a real northern powerhouse.