The West Harris Trust is concerned that the popularity of the west coast of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, is pricing local people out of the housing market and townships being put at risk of becoming depopulated outside of the tourist season. A recently renovated two-bedroom property at Luskentyre, a township overlooking stunning sands and seas, was put on the market for £380,000.
The issue is felt keenly locally. ‘Sales such as that at Luskentyre are purely extractive exercise, damaging to community and culture,’ said Sandra Macleod. ‘Not even the estate agents are island based. What we’re seeing is increasing property and land speculation. This puts property out of the reach of many people and weakens communities here. Many places lie empty for months and with transitory occupants the rest of the time.’
‘Having 65% of properties as 2nd homes is not sustainable for a community,’ said Neil Campbell, secretary of the West Harris Trust. Campbell added that 21 out of 38 properties built or in the process of being built are holiday homes or self-catering cottages.
For now, the trust has little legal clout to change the picture. It requires that if plots are put up for sale that any houses built must be lived in permanently – but it is uncertain whether this is legally enforceable. ‘The risk is that a family member inherits a house on the Island but they’re not particularly interested in relocating, so they break the croft up into plots and build on them. You move from 1 house that is permanently occupied to 4 houses that are 2nd homes or rented out.’
The trust has asked the islands’ council, Comhairle Eilean Siar, to consider making West Harris a control area, where 2nd home ownership is regulated more tightly and such new builds require stricter planning consent. The aim would be to counter the risk that speculators and high-net-worth individuals could routinely outbid local attempts to buy building land when it is put on the market.
In recent years the Trust has built six houses for rent and four for shared ownership and the population within the trust area has risen from 199 in 2010 to 149 this year. However, the Trust wishes to build more. ‘One challenge is that building costs on Harris are 50% higher than on the mainland and the grants available just do not cover the difference.’
Covid-19 may encourage people to relocate permanently, suggests Campbell. ‘Broadband used to be an issue but we do seem to be getting on top of that. It’s a wonderful area to work and Covid has made people realise that, if the links are there, you can work anywhere.’