A Gaelic Housing Strategy
Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh explores innovation and action to support gaelic housing in the highlands. Màrtainn will be appearing at the Ullapool Book Festival on Saturday 6 May, see the full programme HERE.
Economic inequality, and commodification of housing stock, undoubtedly present a major structural challenge which affects not only Gaelic speaking, rural and island communities, but also many areas of the UK, and other countries internationally. The effect on language and culture can be very different however. Skye, Tiree, and the Western Isles contain the last habitual Gaelic speaking communities. These communities are on the verge of extinction and their need for action is urgent.
While some Gaelic supporters claim that there is only a partial overlap between policy solutions to socio-economic structural problems and those for language development, the life of a language is in the people, families and communities who speak it – those communities need to be viable for all those who live in them for the language to survive at all. At the same time, from a language policy perspective, it is certainly important to develop targeted mechanisms that will work to increase the use of Gaelic in particular areas and directly support Gaelic speakers.
Island and rural communities face much higher living costs, the highest rates of fuel poverty in the UK, lower wages, and fewer job opportunities. As with the proposed HPMA’s potentially devastating impact on the fishing industry, the housing crisis, and a failure to address the serious flaws in crofting law and regulation, threaten the very fabric of our island based vernacular Gaelic communities. Those of us who live in island communities want to see progress on both the wider supports to address the housing crisis, land reform, crofting law, and traditional industries, and at the same time on targeted mechanisms to support the Gaelic language in place.
The housing crisis needs addressed to ensure the viability of rural and island communities, but how do we ensure that Gaelic communities are directly supported without provoking dreaded controversy?
The primary legal measure currently used to ensure homes remain homes is known as a ‘Rural Housing Burden’. This locks properties into a 20-40% reduction in market value and prohibits their sale as rental or second homes in perpetuity. In addition, every time a home comes on the market the local ‘Rural Housing Body’, a specified local Community Housing Trust, has a right of pre-emption, first refusal on buying the property. This system should be expanded to ensure greater flexibility for owners of Rural Housing Burden properties when they come to sell, but it could also be used to directly support Gaelic speaking communities through the establishment of a Gaelic Housing Trust as a designated ‘Rural Housing Body’.
The Rural Housing Burden mechanism exists and is in use in the Highlands. Any community housing group can apply for Government recognition as a ‘Rural Housing Body’ and can create, and be the beneficiary of, Rural Housing Burdens. This mechanism allows a Rural Housing Body to define the priority groups to which it will allocate or sell a home to, jointly agreed with the community it represents. By their nature Rural Housing Bodies offer targeted support to specific geographic communities. It is specifically permitted, for example, to favour applicants who have a local connection with an area – potentially a more controversial factor than language ability, since language can be learned by anyone.
The principle of a Gaelic Housing Trust, representing the Gaelic communities of the Highlands and Islands, operating alongside existing localised and Highlands wide community housing trusts should no more provoke significant controversy than having other locality specific trusts serving their geographic communities, nor indeed recently approved plans for over 100 social housing flats to be built in London exclusively for women.
A perfect example of where a Gaelic Housing Trust could have been used to maximum benefit is at the A’ Chill Bheag development on land at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. This scheme will provide welcome new homes in Slèite, directly adjacent to Scotland’s National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture. Unfortunately, there is no direct provision to ensure these new homes will be occupied by Gaelic speakers. Rural Housing Burdens will be in place, but the Rural Housing Body is the Highland wide Communities Housing Trust, and they will facilitate the sale and letting of homes and have the right of pre-emption on future sales. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is by far the largest local employer and their staff will be prioritised to some extent in allocations, but had the scheme, or part of it, been developed with a Gaelic Housing Trust acting as the nominated Rural Housing Body the benefit to the language could have been much more radical and significant.
One of the biggest difficulties in implementing a Gaelic Housing Trust would undoubtedly be its funding, and therefore its ability to support housing developments in the first place. As a Rural Housing Body a Gaelic Housing Trust would be able to apply for grant funding, but there are also tried and tested development models which could be used to reduce its funding requirements. Firstly, housing developments for Gaelic speakers would always be very small scale. Collective Self-Builds offer a suitable development model, widely used across Europe, and now supported by the Scottish and UK Governments.
The Collective Self-Build model brings together a group of people looking to build their own home, reducing costs through economies of scale, shared infrastructure, and services. Effectively allowing a Gaelic Housing Trust to identify a group of interested occupants for a development and involve them in its construction, offering a 20-40% market reduction through attaching a Rural Housing Burden to the title deeds and supporting them with grant funding where available, as well as advice and practical support. Any Government funding would, as with any other Rural Housing Body, be supporting a community-based housing trust in facilitating housing developments by collective self-builders, while securing new homes in perpetuity as permanent residences. However, the recent Rothiemurchus collective self-build of 4 homes was developed without Government subsidy by the Communities Housing Trust and the Rothiemurchus Estate and provides a potential model for a Gaelic Housing Trust to follow.
Rural Housing Burdens can also be attached to the title deeds of existing properties, a Gaelic Housing Trust could be named as beneficiary by individuals supporting the trust and its aims, giving the Gaelic Housing Trust the pre-emption right to buy a home when it is being sold. While the establishment and running of such a trust would by no means be easy, there is a clear legal route to offer direct support to Gaelic speakers in obtaining a place to live in their community. There are also routes, through collective self-builds and RHB’s attached to existing homes, to building a small-scale housing portfolio without been seen as being ‘controversially’ subsidised at the expense of non-Gaelic speakers.
Rural Highland communities, Island communities, and the Gaelic speaking communities that exist within them all need politicians, civil servants, and activists to be creative, bold, and imaginative in developing solutions. There is no doubt that the housing crisis is a multifaceted and complex issue, but there are measures in place that are having a positive impact elsewhere, and in the case of the Rural Housing Burden, already in use in the Highlands and Islands. The status quo is unacceptable, and it is past time for all of us to demand action and new ideas. A Gaelic Housing Trust would be an important step forward in supporting and maintaining Gaelic as a viable community language.