The BBC reported this week that “Homes and Phones are the most important issues which need to be addressed in the Highlands for young people wanting to stay here. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-33801732
Our young people indeed seem to want to stay here and we need to do as much as we can to enable that to happen through our infrastructure, through education and opportunities for further learning at all levels, through apprenticeships and through attracting business to our constituency and through housing.
But these issues aren’t simply issues for the young – for the under 30s. They are issues for the whole of our constituency. I have spoken to so many people over the years living here and traveling the length and breadth of the Highlands for whom housing particularly, is not simply a question to be answered on a survey but an issue which affects their lives, their business and their health, both physical and mental health. A safe, warm home where you feel secure is so important. Not having that causes a significant amount of stress. It can lead to depression and anxiety. Poor quality housing can make existing health conditions worse, damp can contribute to breathing difficulties and poor insulation can contribute to the fuel poverty many people in our constituency experience. The cost of fuel and energy can be higher here than in many other places, many people rely on solid fuel for their heating and this can makes it difficult to keep your home warm if you are existing on a pension or on benefits or even working and on a low income.
Housing is one of my biggest concerns. How do we make sure that we have enough affordable housing in an area where there are so many holiday lets and second homes? Where prices are so high that it’s impossible for people on ordinary wages to buy a home of their own. But it’s not simply one and two bedroomed houses for young families. I spoke to an elderly couple recently who would love to downsize but in their community there are few suitable houses for them to live in. When you look around the constituency for houses to rent, they are few and far between and quite pricey too. If you check out the Facebook page Skye/Lochalsh properties to Rent there are posts and posts of people looking for a home before you find a property advertised. Some of these posts seem quite desperate and it’s heartbreaking.
I want to make sure that we work within our communities to meet housing need. That we understand it and that we are innovative in using the legislation to make sure that we meet the needs of young and older people and make good quality housing available whether that is affordable houses to buy, social housing to rent or private rentals.
Shelter Scotland have a private tenant forum that so far they have limited to the central belt but they have plans to take it to rural areas. I am keen to make sure that they come to our constituency. My family lives in a privately rented house which I was really lucky to get and to be able to afford but there are so many issues around private rents. Lack of a secure tenancy is one. It’s the most terrifying thing to find that the place you call home is going to be sold. I was living in Wick when that happened to me. My marriage had ended and the flat I had escaped to with just my clothes and the boys had been put up for sale. I was on the waiting list for the council and on the homeless list but nothing was happening and even though I was working full-time, buying was not an option. I was tipped off by a friend that a house in the village where my children were at school was being handed back so I phoned the council and was told that it would take two weeks to make a decision about the house. I crossed the days off and then phoned them. I can still remember the poor man on the end of the phone saying to me ” I’m sorry Susan – we had to give it to someone else”. I was utterly devastated and felt completely powerless and I never want anyone else to feel like that.
So housing will be a priority for me. I want to see no empty homes in our communities. I want families to be housed and to be able to stay in their communities and keep their children in our local schools. We work now with organisations like the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust which does a fantastic job in supporting the provision of housing to meet an assortment of needs but we need to do more. We need to use the powers in the Community Empowerment Bill and other legislation to make sure that empty properties are upgraded and let or sold at affordable prices, and we need to build on community involvement in deciding what sort of housing our community needs in advance of planning so that objections are overcome before a lengthy planning battle. You will never please all the people all the time but I often think that housing development is sometimes decided for a community rather than with it.
I would also like to see a bigger charge on second homes in places that have acute housing shortages, when those homes sometimes remain empty for months on end. One house I knew was owned by a Canadian family who came for a month every two years. That does nothing for our villages and communities. Holiday lets are at least bringing people to stay, to eat at local cafes, shop for local produce but second homes – empty for so long contribute little to our economies. I know people love them and often they gave been “grannie’s house” but we have to put our communities and its needs first. Money raised through an extra charge could be used to benefit the local economy and ensure that the place that people love so much remains viable. More charges may not be popular with everyone but we can’t grow vibrant, healthy, economically sound communities when people only visit once a year or less.
My story didn’t end with my going into bed and breakfast with my boys, having to give up my job and having to leave the area to find somewhere to rent. I was lucky but many people aren’t so lucky. “Working tirelessly” is a phrase you have perhaps read many times this last week or so but I hope you forgive me for using it again. I will work tirelessly to ensure that people never have to feel the way I felt or face the fears that I had to face. You, your families and your lives will be the focus of the work that I do and being a strong voice for our constituency is the way to do that – I will be that strong voice.