THE shortage of rural housing has been pinpointed as the “single biggest block” to business growth in one of Scotland’s most popular tourist regions.

The co-owner of a leading tourism business in Tyndrum has told The Herald that an accommodation shortfall is impeding plans for economic development in rural areas.

Her comments come as tourism and hospitality firms across Scotland continue to face acute staff shortages in part because of insufficient housing, leaving many unable to trade at full capacity.

One Highland property developer said the Scottish Government needs to deliver more housing across different types of tenure to “target those in need”, as the gap between the supply and demand of affordable homes steadily widens across the region.

Sarah Heward and husband Alan McColm have owned The Real Food Café in the Stirling area for 17 years, having turned a derelict former Little Chef roadside restaurant into an award-winning tourist destination.

Ms Heward said: “When I came here, a successful local business person said to me that the lack of housing was the single biggest block to business growth in Tyndrum. That was in 2004. Guess what? Nothing has changed. In fact, it has got worse.

“One of the four pillars of the [Loch Lomond and the Trossachs] National Park is to promote the economic development of communities. Personally, I have not seen an awful lot of that in the near-20 years that I have been here. I see a huge focus on nature conservation, which is good… but there is no balance as far as I can see, certainly when it comes to economic development of communities.”

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Ms Heward has plans for a new food and drink concept that she would like to develop but said the lack of housing was a “huge barrier”.

The Real Food Café provides accommodation for around 12 of its 28 employees in staff quarters but Ms Heward said expanding such facilities would be a “massive on-cost to the cost of doing business in this rural area, and there is no support for that at all”.

She said: “There are things that we would like to do to develop the business further but we can’t do those. And one of the biggest issues is the lack of accommodation.

“There is a very well-documented issue with the recruitment and retention [of staff] in hospitality and tourism throughout the whole country, but in particular in rural areas. The housing shortage makes that far more difficult.

"Good, high-quality candidates don’t want to feel that they are going to be stuck in staff accommodation, potentially for a long period of time. They want to have the chance to either rent or buy their own property, and that is very challenging.”

Ms Heward added: “The only action that I am seeing from the Scottish Government on this topic seems to be the short-term let licensing legislation they are talking about bringing in. That will achieve absolutely nothing in this rural community. It will achieve nothing positive, because generally the people that have these short-term lets are local people and it is another stream to their income.

“Often people in rural areas have two or three jobs [so] will rent out their spare rooms or chalets in their gardens as Airbnbs to help boost their income. These are not properties that are going to enhance the property market – they are just going to detract from rural income streams. We need the accommodation for tourists as well as workers.”

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Ms Heward also observed that moves by investors to buy up huge estates in Scotland are putting pressure on housing stock, as they are buying up property for their own staff.

“So, if and when things come on to the market, indigenous business like ours can find ourselves competing with people with very deep pockets for property,” she said. “That’s another issue that’s making the situation more challenging."

The challenge posed by the shortage of rural housing was also highlighted by Stephen Leckie, chief executive of the Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels, which runs a range of properties around Scotland.

Mr Leckie said the company provides 220 beds for staff at Crieff Hydro in Perthshire, as well as accommodation for people employed at its three hotels in the west of Scotland, Ballachulish, Isle of Glencoe, and Kingshouse, “and they are all full all of the time”.

He said: “Here is an example of what it costs. Every live-in person pays a fraction per week of what it costs us to subsidise that live-in accommodation.”

Noting that it has become more expensive to provide live-in accommodation as overheads such as energy, insurance, and business rates have soared in recent times, Mr Leckie said: “If we didn't do it, we’d be even worse off for staff accommodation.”

He added: “We have some really nice self-catering accommodation for our people who live out there. To live in Glencoe, it takes a certain type. It is all very well saying, "it’s lovely out here" if you are there for a few days. It’s quite tough, so we want to look after our people and make them happy to be living and working there.”

Mr Leckie declared that if more firms in the hospitality and tourism sector in Scotland were able to house people in affordable accommodation near their premises, “the industry would be less throttled in its ability to recover from Covid and do better”.

While the Crieff group had 1,050 staff before lockdown in 2020, it now has 850.

With vacancies for between 60 and 70 roles at present, Mr Leckie said that “the pressure is on” the team.