Boris Johnson's crazy intention to let tenants buy precious housing stock from social landlords has produced a collective sigh of relief in Scotland. Happily, thanks to devolution, the PM’s writ does not extend here.

And although Labour’s Wendy Alexander extended Maggie’s right to buy to many Scottish Housing Association tenants 20 years ago, to encourage support for Glasgow’s council stock transfer – the measure was abolished by the SNP in 2014. And rightly so.

According to the Scottish Government, Thatcher took a whopping half a million council houses out of the social rented sector in Scotland and after that the task of supplying affordable socially rented homes fell to privately-owned housing associations (most with charitable status).

But building back has been a long haul. One rural housing association has only just reached pre-1980s stock levels after 40 years of slow growth.

So, whether Boris actually proceeds with his unworkable plan south of the border or quietly dumps it, all in the Scottish garden is not rosy. Rural housing is in crisis. The expansion of second homes post-Covid and the relentless conversion of long-term rentals into holiday lets has made almost every rural home unaffordable for local people – even key workers with NHS jobs. Volume house builders won’t touch rural Scotland, self-build dried up after the financial crash and banks are shamefully reluctant to back folk who try to cut out the housing middle-men.

So social housing is the only affordable game in town, village and clachan. But many housing associations have stopped developing new rural homes, preferring instead to build large clumps in easier-to-access towns, exacerbating the flight from rural Scotland. Indeed, the Scottish Government’s controversial National Planning Framework 4 makes ‘big town’ rural Scotland the officially sanctioned template for the next 20 years of planning.

But there is a bright light in Scotland’s rural communities – themselves. Community groups, trusts and a few remotely located housing associations have come together to beat a system that seems designed to thwart all progress.

Take the new Smart Clachan project to create six shared-equity homes beside a community-owned workspace on land near Lochboisdale on South Uist with priority given to islanders. The project will feature prefabricated units made in a Barra quarry by local company Modular West – game-changing construction without the wind, rain and midges of building on site or the carbon-guzzling of journeys from Scandinavia.

That’s smart, but even smarter is the joint working. Community landowner Storas Uibhist provided the land and Rural Housing Scotland won Esmee Fairbairn cash for a development worker to put the funding package together.

That crucial role – the paid ‘developer’ – is missing across large parts of Scotland. Which is maddening. Because despite the land scarcity in empty ‘post-feudal’ Scotland, local communities do know possible sites and can lean on owners. Exclude locals from planning and the authorities doubtless feel vindicated when they settle instead for town-based developments where volume house builders have already banked land.

The future could be so different if local and Holyrood planners could simply acknowledge that people are dogged, ingenious and successful, given the smallest chance to build and repopulate their own communities.

The evidence is all around. In Staffin on Skye, no new homes had been built for 23 years. Locals created the Staffin Community Trust (SCT) and despite a year-long delay by the Scottish Land Court settling one crofter objection (which almost lost time-limited funding pots), Skye and Lochalsh Housing Association and the Communities Housing Trust swung in behind the SCT to build six homes, a community-owned health centre and two business units now occupied by local Organic Sea Harvest.

To urban eyes – or indeed Edinburgh-based civil servants – these small numbers may seem pitifully small beer. But this line in the sand, this housing anchor has probably saved Staffin from becoming a ‘community’ of second homes. The homes are genuinely affordable but they also offer a choice of tenure – something equally rare in Highland Scotland.

Most are for social rent, but two are for discounted sale protected by the Rural Housing Burden (a 2003 measure also produced by Jack McConnell’s Lab-Lib Government) which bans sub-letting as holiday homes and gives the community first dibs should the houses come back onto the market.

The Inverness-based Communities Housing Trust has quietly been using the Rural Housing Burden as it pieces together plots of land identified by locals and pots of housing cash across the Highlands over the last decade, building 62 new homes – one house here and two there – from its latest £7.5 million pot of cash. It takes tenacity to undertake the lengthy (and unpaid) community consultation to get plans off the ground, but it works.

Of course, assuming the mantle of housing developer is a huge burden for communities who're expected to develop just about everything else as well. The Scottish Land Commission wants a new public land agency with the power and funding to map out land for compulsory purchase by councils across Scotland after consultation with communities. But some housing experts fear that will simply push up the value of land and in any case, there’s no backing yet from the Scottish Government.

Others want to end the single Highlands-wide housing register that stops local communities from tailoring their homes to local needs.

On the community-controlled island of Gigha, folk who apply for housing with kids, viable business ideas or missing trade skills are most likely to succeed in getting homes. That’s possibly because the housing is owned by a charitable trust.

In Applecross, the priority has been housing for local elderly people and in Lochcarron and the Cairngorms it’s been housing for key workers. Canny local housing schemes also plan for life beyond construction so there are local companies ready to do maintenance and repairs. That’s why smart housing projects are encouraging local business start-ups.

So, what’s the key to more affordable rural housing? Actually, more support for what’s already happening locally may be more important than the search for a silver policy bullet.

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