MSPs will be warned this week that island and rural communities cannot be left at the mercy of an unrestrained housing market.
A debate will be held in the Scottish Parliament to discuss the need for more affordable housing in areas facing growing demand from cash-rich buyers from cities, a situation exacerbated since lockdown.
It follows community figures in Uist, Argyll and Skye recently issuing an open letter warning of an “economic clearance” due to the unsustainable and deteriorating situation caused by the lack of suitable housing and open market pressures.
House prices in the Western Isles have doubled since 2004 and up to 60% of houses in some communities are now second or holiday homes.
Proposals put forward in the letter include Uist being used as part of a trial where houses are initially advertised locally to give the community first refusal.
The debate has been called by Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan. His motion, which received cross-party support, notes concerns raised about rising property prices in many parts of the Highlands and Islands and the increasing interest in rural housing markets since the beginning of the pandemic.
He said: “Islands face unique and growing problems when it comes to the supply of housing. In some communities, holiday homes and second homes now account, between them, for almost 60% of all houses.
“There are some communities where there are now no new children entering primary schools. No affordable housing ultimately means closed schools and the lights of a community going out.
“There do also have to be some houses in the islands available to buy at a reasonable price by people who want to live there all year round during their working lives. We desperately need more people, even just to fill the job vacancies which are projected to come up over the next few years.
“Whatever solutions we arrive at, it is becoming clear we cannot leave the future of our communities to the mercy of an unrestrained free market in housing.”
The letter highlighted an increase in houses being snapped up by people wishing to work from home in a more rural location during the pandemic. It argued this is countering a trend by young people to move back to islands and rural areas.
It said: “The number of young people wishing to return home following Covid-19 is continuing to rise, especially when connectivity is enabling people to work from homes in rural areas more than ever”, but added; “But just as the infrastructural disparity between rural and urban areas is being reconciled, finally opening up a huge array of work opportunities in the Highlands and Islands, a new barrier is halting this progress.”
Other potential solutions may include moves to reduce single occupancy in under-occupied houses and the introduction of short-term let control areas.
Last week, Uist-based social enterprise CoDeL said “urban flight” caused by the pandemic is helping to drive up house prices. It said the return of young people to island and rural areas is being “severely imperilled” by people snapping up houses.