The struggle to meet energy efficiency targets and a lack of available land are two of the most recent issues the Western Isles Local Housing Strategy will highlight.
Like other local governments across Scotland, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar released their last Local Housing Strategy in 2017.
A scheme put forward by the Scottish Government, Local Housing Strategies lay out a council’s plans to help achieve the goal of safe, affordable housing for everyone.
“It’s partly aspirational,” says the Comhairle’s Iain Watson. Mr Watson and his team are currently working on a strategy for 2024-2029.
Housing strategy ‘aspirational’
He says the strategy will let the Scottish Government know “what kind of things we’re having to contend with”, which may lead to “scope for them providing funding”.
“But the way things have been in the last five years, it’s pretty grim in terms of funding,” he says. “So we’re not holding much in store for that.”
Even so, he and his team are dedicated to making the best strategy possible for people in the Western Isles.
And, while he says the 2024-2029 Local Housing Strategy is set to be “very similar” to the last one, he warns that islanders are facing new problems on top of the old.
What are the new issues?
“There’s a requirement for all private houses to reach a certain energy [efficiency] standard by between 2030 and 2040,” Mr Watson says.
On one hand, this new rule is “great”, he says. “It’s going to sort of shape the direction of travel by having legislation and policy guidelines for delivering [energy efficiency].”
However, he says, “it’s going to be quite an expensive business for every house to reach that standard.”
The cost in the Western Isles would be “millions and millions”.
The islands’ homes lag behind in energy efficiency compared to the rest of Scotland. This means more will have to be spent on upgrading while, at the same time, residents face the highest rate of fuel poverty in Scotland.
“One thing the Scottish Government hasn’t be able to confirm yet is if there’s going to be grants available,” Mr Watson says.
“We’ll have to flag it up in the Local Housing Strategy,” he says.
He also hopes that the Government may be able to provide “financial assistance” for “day-to-day repairs”.
“It would be crazy to put in a new heating system and insulate part of a house if your roof’s leaking.”
Increasing flood risks
Mr Watson also highlighted another growing problem: the lack of available land for new housing.
“A lot of the land that is brought to our attention turns out not to be suitable,” he says.
With the amount of water in the area, “it’s primarily down to the ground conditions.”
“More recently, flood risk has become a bigger issue.”
Climate change means the problem of flooding is likely to increase.
“There will always be a demand for more affordable housing,” he says. “Maybe not at the scale of just now, but it will need land and it’s got to be land that’s suitable.”
“So I think finding land will be more of a challenge in the future.”
What still needs fixing?
While there will likely be new issues raised in the Local Housing Strategy, much of it will aim to tackle problems that been affecting the Western Isles for years.
Some, like the lack of new housing, are well-known. But Mr Watson says there are issues that, in comparison, can go unnoticed.
For example, he says, “a lot of people probably aren’t aware of the scale of homeless on the islands.”
In the year 2021-2022, there were 153 homelessness applications in the Western Isles.
While some community consultation has already taken place, there’s still a lot of work left before the Western Isles’ new Local Housing Strategy is finished.
“Hopefully we’ll get a final draft by the end of the year, and send that off to the Scottish Government,” he says.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s the nature of the process and those of us who work on it enjoy it.”
More local reporting from the Western Isles: