Rural Scotland's housing shortage remains a stumbling block to stimulating local economies with new workers – but some fish farming firms are now taking matters into their own hands, reveals Andrew Collier

Scotland’s rural landscape is one of the country’s greatest assets. Varied, unique and beautiful, it offers aspirational lifestyles and draws tourists like a magnet.

But its very popularity is also the root of some deep-seated problems.

Arguably the most serious of these is the lack of suitable rural housing provision, particularly in the Highlands and Islands. A near-insatiable demand means that stock is in short supply and properties that do go on the market tend to get snapped up at high prices.

This shortage causes numerous problems: it halts mobility, creates friction, stifles the economy and impedes employment. 

Businesses may be looking for workers, and the desirability of the area means that people from outside the region are willing to apply for jobs. But if they cannot find or afford anywhere to live, then they simply can’t take up employment offers.

One radical but workable solution is for companies in the Highlands and Islands to build properties themselves. The most proactive sector doing this is aquaculture, with salmon farms now constructing houses not just for their own workers, but for the local community too.

One of the companies doing this is the seafood giant Mowi, which has 1500 employees in Scotland. Its farms help to sustain fragile island communities including Muck, Rum and Colonsay by putting in investment in a variety of ways, including housing provision.

HeraldScotland:

Seafood giant Mowi, which has 1500 Scottish employees,  has built houses, pictured left, for their staff on the Isle of Muck 

The former MSP and Scottish Government minister Tavish Scott is Chief Executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation. “The lack of housing in rural Scotland is acute, and in the more far-flung areas where our operations tend to take place, it’s even more pronounced”, he says.

Why is this? It is, he explains, down to a combination of factors. “There isn’t enough local authority or housing association provision. On top of that, you have a ridiculously buoyant market. People not just from leafy Surrey, but also from leafy Edinburgh or Glasgow, like having a house in the West Highlands. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s an ongoing one. The market is being artificially inflated by the pressure created by money flowing out of the urban areas of the UK.”

This situation has forced the salmon industry to create its own solutions. “It’s about us striking partnerships with housing associations, local authorities and local community trusts. 

“The old ways of doing things just haven’t worked. Our member companies are now looking at where they can build houses.”

Mr Scott points out that the average salary in the Scottish salmon farming sector is now £34,000. “So it’s good money in rural isolated Scotland. Even in Shetland, outside the oil industry, there’s nothing that pays that. 

“That means people can afford to pay their mortgages. The fundamental issue is availability of land – ownership issues are challenging – and the services that need to go into putting a house in the right place.”

It might seem incongruous for local businesses to have to effectively build their own houses, but he argues that given the circumstances they have little alternative.

“Our members need people to come and work for them. Say you’re a marine biologist and you’ve just been taken on by Mowi. 

“It’s a great job, but you come up and you find there isn’t anywhere to stay. 

“If we wait for the public sector to come up with a solution – well it’s just not going to happen. Even if it does, it’ll be long after that marine biologist has gone to work somewhere else. The jobs market and the availability of housing are clashing at the moment.”

The economics of housebuilding dictate that it makes more commercial sense to build 50 houses outside Inverness than one or two on the west coast, he adds.

“That’s why we have been working with local community trusts that share the objective of having social rented housing in the right places.”

Why, though, does the industry’s commitment to this go beyond providing housing for their own workers into doing so for the wider local area and economy? “It’s because we recognise as a sector that we play a big role in local coastal communities and we’re a big employer there.

“We depend on those communities and we need their support. So we want to put something back. We can do that with new playgrounds or strips for the local shinty team and they are good things, but housing is practical and needed.

“I think Mowi has shown exemplary leadership in this, but all our companies are now exploring how they can provide key worker housing at the same time as putting something back into the local community.”

In terms of the broader picture, things may get worse before they get better. Even the remotest parts of the Highlands now have high speed broadband, making them highly attractive to homeworkers who don’t need to visit an office regularly.

The Covid-19 pandemic is driving a rethink on how people work, meaning it is even more likely that people will move to internet-enabled rural areas, so ramping up the pressure on housing markets even further.

Frazer Coupland, who is Chief Executive of Lochaber Chamber of Commerce,  does not mince his words. The housing situation, he says, is “more than pretty grim – it’s awful”.

He gives an example: “Within a couple of hundred metres of where I live, an ex-council house went on the market for £187,000 and sold within 25 minutes for £235,000. 

The problem is now so acute, he says, that even the current building of 400 houses in Fort William will hardly make a dent in it. “There’s not the housing supply, or the planning for the supply. 

“A lot of properties have been bought for short-term holiday lets because that brings in good money and it’s a way for people in rural areas to supplement their income.”

“Our own organisation works extremely hard on attracting talent 
to the area. “But we keep getting caught. People say they would love 
to come here, but they can’t afford a house. It’s having a real economic impact. 

“I do think, though, that the salmon industry is at the leading edge of tackling this. 

“We welcome their innovation and investment in housing. We’ve been working with the industry to portray the positive aspects of aquaculture and this is one of them.”

---------------------------------------

Firm ensures the island idyll is built to endure on Muck

The Isle of Muck may not quite be paradise for everyone, but on a day when the sun is shining and the Atlantic winds are still, it certainly seems idyllic. Neil Gillies, an incomer from Mallaig who arrived in 2015, certainly thinks so.

As the Site Manager for the Mowi salmon farm on the tiny island – with 17 people on the payroll, it is the biggest local employer - Neil is lucky. He is able to live on Muck full time because the company has provided him and his family with a modern three bedroomed house on the island.

HeraldScotland:

 Mowi invested in a fish farm on the Island of Muck – population 42 – in 2014

It is one of three homes Mowi has built on the island. 

The other managers are not permanently resident but use the other two properties on a rotating basis. In effect, the houses are community facilities, as they provide much needed housing not just for the business, but for the island too.

“I can now live here with my wife and three kids”, he explains.

“We have a massive modern open plan house originally built in 2015 with a big garden. It’s a lovely wooden-clad property with a log burner, though it’s so well insulated that you have to be careful with the heating – it can get really hot. It’s just great.”

Muck’s population is now 42. That may not sound a lot, but it is a substantial rise on the figure of 27 recorded in the 2011 census. Much of this is accounted for by Mowi’s decision to invest in a fish farm on the island in 2014. Neil arrived on the island soon after Mowi began operations, moving into the new house, which cost about £250,000 to build, in 2019 when it became available to him.
The house is a genuine community asset: Mowi pays for its upkeep and if its 25-year contract to operate the fish farm on the island is not renewed, it will be handed over to the island population.

Neil believes that the lack of suitable housing on islands like Muck acts as a constraint on growing local populations. “I think that more people would come to these areas if more accommodation was available. 

At the moment, every house is taken – no family could come to live here unless another moved away.

He concedes that anyone moving in has to be able to make a living and the available employment on Muck is currently in balance with the size of the population. 

However, the island now has 50 MB fibre broadband, meaning it could attract digital homeworkers if suitable housing were available.
“The island is in a good position at the moment and things are pretty stable, but I think that – within reason – if you were to get more people coming in, that would be a great thing. 

“We are fortunate in that there’s a real community spirit, but a few more incomers would be nice. If they were able to come, it would be a fabulous lifestyle for them.”

Neil sees fish farm operators as having a positive presence in rural areas. Their efforts to provide benefits such as accommodation in local communities are, he believes, paying dividends.

The presence of these operations also has a multiplier effect on the economy: Mowi also provides work for a cleaner and two boatmen as well as business for the island’s tea shop. 

“We buy bacon rolls and so on and the owner does dinners for us during the summer months. 

“My children are also at the island school and so that’s being supported. The sense of community here really is amazing and I’m lucky to be part of it. I never thought I’d end up here in a million years. It’s a great experience and lifestyle – I don’t think that I would ever want to move.”

  • This article was brought to you in partnership with the Scottish Salmon producers Organisation as part of The Herald's Climate For Change campaign