A Wester Ross community project has beaten competition from across Europe at an international awards ceremony.
Gairloch’s Achtercairn initiative was recognised at the European Responsible Housing Awards, part of the International Social Housing Festival in Helsinki.
Winning the ‘More Than a Roof’ category, it won over finalists in Berlin, Budapest, Dublin and Oviedo in Spain.
Project transformed a derelict site
The Achtercairn project was driven by falling school numbers with families in the population of around 750 struggling to find affordable accommodation.
Undertaken by the Communities Housing Trust (CHT), the project transformed an eyesore derelict site in Gairloch which is on the NC500 tourist route.
Gairloch residents and around 50 partner organisations worked on the transformation.
Completed in 2020 during lockdown, the site includes 25 affordable houses, new shops and commercial space.
There is also a cafe stocking produce from more than 40 local suppliers and the GALE Centre tourist hub.
It was Scotland’s first public building to win Passivhaus status for energy efficiency.
New shops helps local spending
The Gairloch and Loch Ewe Action Forum (GALE) employs staff year-round at the centre. It receives more than 40,000 visitors a year.
The wider range of shops and services available locally reduces the need to travel and helps keep spending power local.
Also on site is Gairloch Farm Shop, which houses a vet clinic, an Air Training Corps facility, community rooms and a veg-growing and composting area for the cafe.
A University of the Highlands and Islands classroom, enabling people of all ages to access new education opportunities, has since moved to larger premises.
The award judges said Achtercairn is an “important project”.
They added: “Diminishing communities should not be underestimated.”
They say the list of partners involved in the project is impressive as were efforts to rethink the strategy of revitalising the rural area.
“This project could be a good model and inspiration for other villages, and is already being adapted and implemented elsewhere.”
CHT chief executive Ronnie MacRae accepted the award.
He said: “We know from our daily work that rural communities in Scotland are leading the way in creating sustainable futures for themselves.
A tribute to community-led development
“For this to be recognised internationally is a great tribute to the power of community-led development.
“The community wanted to make sure the village is a ‘living’ village, and look at the reasons people were being forced to leave.
“They looked at their situation very holistically and have managed to help diversify and stabilise the local economy, as well as provide a range of genuinely affordable homes which are protected for use by the local community.
“Scotland has some good legislation and policies for empowering many more communities to follow Gairloch’s example.”
Janet Miles, managing director of GALE, said: “The whole development has brought new prosperity to the Gairloch and Loch Ewe communities.
“Jobs and housing go hand in hand here. This development has enabled our tiny development trust to create 20 year-round jobs and new income-generating opportunities for over 5% of the Gairloch and Loch Ewe population.”
Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Ian Blackford praised the project’s “holistic approach” to ensure a sustainable future for the community.
A vibrant future for Gairloch
“The importance of genuinely affordable housing, protected for use by the local community, in rural communities such as this cannot be overstated.
“Coupled with the jobs which have been created, this has ensured a vibrant future for the people.
“It’s something I’d very much like to see replicated throughout Scotland.”
The Scottish Government and Highland Council funded the project.
Other key partners include Albyn Housing Society, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Gairloch Estate and the Ministry of Defence.
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