THE extra costs of living in the rural Highlands have been laid bare in a shock new report which has sparked concern among local politicians. 

People living in Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch have been found to have the highest level of mortgage arrears in Scotland, while also facing increased costs for utilities. 

The influx of people buying second properties - either to rent or as holiday homes - has been partly blamed for pushing up the cost of buying a house and pricing locals out of the market.

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A study by national debt charity StepChange found that almost one in three householders was behind on their mortgage payments, with the average being a colossal £16,155.

Meanwhile, the same report also showed that the Highlands and Islands has the highest electricity bill arrears out of the eight Scottish regions with £1,143, and the second highest for gas debt at £685.

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Overall, the average debt held by people in the Highlands and Islands as a region was £4,612 compared to a Scottish norm of £2,832, the Scotland in the Red survey found.

StepChange believes that almost three quarters of a million in Scotland are at risk of problematic debts, or already face money troubles.

The charity said that mortgage and other arrears a primary symptom of poverty along with poor housing conditions, welfare cuts, ill-health and insecure work. It found a an increase in the numer of people borrowing, and helped more clients with personal loans.

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Many are attracted to Lochaber for its stunning views 

Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said the figures were "extremely worrying" and driven by higher utility costs and more economic fragility. 

She added: "Behind every figure is a family struggling to make ends meet and feeling the weight of debt on their shoulders. 

“A lot of poverty in the Highlands goes unseen and unchecked, so reports like this are important for bringing facts into the light. Charities, like Christians Against Poverty and Step Change can help families deal with debt and I would strongly encourage anybody with the burden of debt to get in touch with them.

“There are obviously particular pressures in my constituency, which means that the average mortgage debt is significantly higher than the Highland average.

"The gap between average income and average house prices is wider than in many other parts of Scotland." 

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Kate Forbes MSP

Ms Forbes said that the Scottish Government was trying to mitigate the worst of the issues, especially the crisis in housing.

The MSP said: "There will be additional reasons for these figures, not least the much lower number of properties to let or to rent, leaving people with little choice but to buy. 

“I think the solutions to this are many and varied. Whilst the Government has a programme of work that means over 75,000 new homes have been built across Scotland since the SNP came to power, there remains a challenge with second homes in the Highlands absorbing additional housing and driving up prices. 

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“We also need to make sure it is ‘mixed tenure’ and there are different types of affordability – properties to rent, shared equity schemes and self-build funds.

"These figures are, of course, indicative of a lack of construction over ten years ago and I would hope that with a renewed focus on accessible, affordable housing and increased supply, we start to see a reduction in these unacceptable high levels of debt.”

StepChange helped more than 30,000 people across Scotland last year, and said that the biggest worry mist had was with Council Tax arrears.

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The number of people seeking help with debt is increasing

Almost 15,000 people had trouble paying their local authority bills, with an average backlog of £2,017. 
Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 5 people who approached the charity were behind on their electricity bill, a 4 per cent jump on 2017. They owed an average of £826, a 10% increase in just one year. 

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More Scots are being pushed into debt because of reductions in income or benefits, the charity said, with a quarter of the people it helped saying that a reduction social security payments was the reason the were in the red - an increase of 7% in just one year. 

Sharon Bell, Head of StepChange Debt Charity Scotland said: “The vast majority of StepChange clients are in problem debt due to circumstances they could not have prevented or planned for such as unemployment, ill-health or reductions in income.

"I am increasingly alarmed by the increases in the proportion of our clients who are struggling with household bills, particularly Council Tax. Our research shows that our clients in Scotland are significantly more likely to have Council Tax arrears compared to elsewhere in the UK. 

“We are seeing a record level of demand for help with problem debt with over a third of our clients having an additional vulnerability, such as illness. We need more signposting to free debt advice, as the earlier someone gets debt advice the greater their options may be and the less harm they could experience.”