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Park Talk: Affordable housing delivery

14th March 2024

By Sandy Bremner, Convener of the Cairngorms National Park Authority board

The shortage of affordable housing is hurting our communities and there’s an urgent need for action. That’s the message I took to Scotland’s Housing Minister at our recent meeting when we agreed on the need to speed up measures to tackle a problem that’s been decades in the making.

Describing the first part of that message is the easy bit. We’ve seen examples across the country. Some are heartbreaking.

People who want to live and work in an area but can’t afford to rent or buy because of the growing gap between wages and prices – competing with deeper pockets. It means disrupted lives and life chances.

For communities, it tilts the balance against young, working families. Businesses struggle to find staff. An ageing population finds it increasingly hard to secure the services it needs.

We all know some of the historical, market and public-policy factors that got us here.

We are starting with a fraction of our former public-housing stock – despite significant investment over the years by Scottish Government. Scarce land for new building usually goes to the highest bidder in an already tight market, with escalating construction costs. So limited public funding produces fewer homes.

Rental markets have been squeezed by relatively higher returns from holiday letting. Then there are the costs of upgrading properties to modern standards.

Private developers in many areas are incentivised by the market to build houses that will be bought as second homes or holiday lets. The list goes on.

In short, we know how many affordable houses our communities need in the Cairngorms National Park. These targets are approved by Ministers. But the current economic model to deliver them doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for developers, housing authorities, and it certainly doesn’t work for the communities that need them so badly.

It’s not all gloom. There are some great initiatives across our National Park and in other areas of rural Scotland where these problems are even more acute. There are inspiring projects involving Highland Council, the Government’s own housing team, community groups and other bodies. But they are mostly limited in their scale and potential impact.

The Cairngorms National Park is not a housing authority, but we have already supported initiatives to tackle the crisis. We have ambitious targets. And the delivery of affordable housing will be at the heart of our next Local Development Plan. Our Board and staff feel strongly that more progress must be made to deliver at scale for the sake of our communities.

The Scottish Land Commission have done significant work on this issue, as have individual councils and other organisations. We stand ready to work with them and Scottish Government to help deliver.

The challenge is to re-set the economic model for delivering affordable housing. This was done with imaginative national thinking after the two World Wars, in the face of major health and housing crises. It’s time for us all to again demonstrate that same sense of ambition.