CONSTRUCTION work is underway on a £1.6million housing, health and economic project in Skye.
The eagerly-awaited site start in Stenscholl, Staffin by island-based James MacQueen Builders comes 21 years after the last affordable housing development opened in the north-east Skye community.
Six three-bedroom homes, a health centre and two business premises will be built in the next 12 months, with the investment a welcome boost for Skye’s economy following the impact of COVID-19.
Staffin Community Trust (SCT) has developed the project for six years after concerns about the lack of available accommodation locally for young people and families, the falling roll at Bun Sgoil Stafainn and the declining population.
It will be the biggest capital project SCT is involved in to date, with significant Scottish Government support. The common grazing land was previously owned by Scottish Ministers and tenanted by the Stenscholl Township.
Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) funded a housing needs report six years ago, which identified a clear demand locally for new homes to ensure the community’s sustainability.
SCT then held a housing summit attended by Staffin Community Council, the council, Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association (LSHA) and the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust (HSCHT). A call for sites was later made and SCT, with input from all the relevant stakeholders, agreed the most suitable site was on Stenscholl common grazing close to the school.
The community organisation formed a partnership with HSCHT and LSHA to tap into their expertise and deliver the development, which has overcome significant challenges.
Donald MacDonald, a founding member of SCT, was delighted at the site works commencing. He said: “This is a significant project for a community which was overlooked by public agencies for far too long. We welcome the support that has been given but it is extremely frustrating that this has taken six years to build only six houses.
“The demand far outstrips this project and there is a real need for the Scottish Government and local authorities to put systems in place that encourage local development and support the efforts of community trusts and other voluntary groups. This community has seen a decline in population due to existing policies and planning regulations which deter development. Surely, in these challenging times, it is time to relax the rules and the public purse to allow communities to thrive and for people to have confidence in their ability to deliver.”
Housing Minister Kevin Stewart MSP said: “This innovative project shows what a community can achieve when empowered to take local decisions. Supported by over £650,000 from the Scottish Government’s Rural and Islands Housing fund and our Affordable Housing Supply Programme, these new homes will help grow and sustain the community as well as providing safe, warm and affordable places to live.
“As housebuilding resumes safely, partnership working like this will be vital to sustain our construction industry, stimulate growth and help us fulfil our ambition to deliver the right homes in the right places across Scotland.”
Kate Forbes, Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP, cut the turf on the site and said: “There is no question that housing is critical to keeping the communities of Staffin and the north end of Skye strong. As we’ve seen recently, even our language is at stake when communities fall in number. The list of people that have expressed an interest demonstrates just how popular new, affordable housing is. I’m looking forward to returning once the houses are built.”
SCT bought the site for £70,000, using a grant from the Scottish Land Fund.
The key project funders to date also includes the Rural Housing Fund, HIE, LEADER, the SSE Sustainable Development Fund, the Quaker Housing Trust and a crowdfunding campaign, which raised more than £7,0000, with the acclaimed Gaelic singer Alasdair Gillies personally donating £3,000.
SCT is grateful for a short-term guarantor loan from Highland Council, approved by its economy and infrastructure committee last month, which allowed the contractor to be appointed and the works to commence.
HIE is a long-term funder of SCT’s project work through its Community Capacity Building Programme for fragile communities, helping it employ a full-time employee. HIE’s support has been crucial to this project’s delivery.
SCT has received more than 10 expressions of interest from families/individuals in the new homes. There are also six notes of interest in the business units, while it is hoped to come to an agreement with NHS Highland about becoming a long-term tenant of the new health centre.
Eilean A’Cheo councillor John Finlayson, chair of the council’s education Committee and a director on the LSHA board, said: “I’ve been delighted to have worked with SCT on this project and in discussions with council officers and SCT officers to move the project forward. We need all the additional housing we can get on Skye at present and it is really important to ensure that we support house building projects in all areas, including more rural areas like Staffin where we have not seen affordable housing being built for many years. All the agencies and of course SCT are to be congratulated for moving this project forward so positively.”
Councillor John Gordon, the Skye and Raasay Committee chairman, added: “Housing and development is vital to the rural Highland economy and I am delighted that this will make such a difference and will strengthen the local community. Staffin Trust are to be congratulated on delivering this project and working with various partners including the Highland Council so that Staffin continues to be a sustainable community for generations to come.”
Alastair Nicolson, HIE’s interim area manager for Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross, said: “This is an ambitious project by SCT, with potentially far reaching benefits for present and future generations. The availability of business premises will enable local firms to expand or new enterprises to start up, while the provision of housing and health services will help strengthen community resilience.
“All of this is important in attracting and retaining talent in the area, particularly young people and families, and underpinning wider regional development. We are very pleased to support the project and look forward to it taking shape.”
HSCHT chief executive Ronnie MacRae said: “It’s fantastic to see this project start on site. This is the culmination of many years of visionary community work to provide a place-based approach to community development. With support from many including Rural and Island Housing Fund, Highland Council, HIE and particularly the Scottish Government, SCT will be providing a great example of mixed use and mixed tenure development, especially through provision of improved health care facilities and innovative health opportunities for north Skye which will be an exemplar for other areas to follow.”
Dr Audrey Sinclair, LSHA chairwoman, said: “We are delighted that this rural mixed-use development is about to start on site. Staffin Community Trust is to be applauded for their vision, determination and tenacity to drive forward this project. This builds on SCT’s successful track record of economic regeneration within a remote rural community.”
James MacQueen, of MacQueen Builders, said: “James MacQueen Building Contractors are dedicated to providing architect-designed, energy efficient, low-cost, locally-built homes that can endure the rigours of Skye weather for years to come. We are delighted to be involved in this project with Staffin Community Trust, Highland Small Communities Housing Trust and Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association, providing much needed affordable housing that will benefit the Staffin community for generations.”
SCT is grateful to the Stenscholl crofters, the Kilmuir Estate and Staffin Community Council for its backing over the last few years.