RURAL COMMUNITY-LED HOUSING DELIVERY: SMALE SCALE, BIG IMPACT

Case studies of community-led initiatives which have successfully delivered housing projects with support from the Rural Housing Fund, from the Highlands & Islands and Dumfries & Galloway, highlight the variety of approaches rural communities have taken to meeting their particular housing needs, and the challenges they have overcome to do so.   Community-led housing solutions are rarely quick ones, but the rewards they bring are so much more than bricks and mortar.

Community development trusts rarely set out to deliver ambitious housing delivery projects, however years of consultations and feasibility studies often conclude there are no other options available than to go it alone.  As the case study examples demonstrate, such projects have taken years to come to fruition, often having to overcome bureaucratic, legal and financial hurdles along the way, and all without prior experience of managing a project of this type or scale.

In each case study, the projects would not have progressed without either dedicated project officers in post, or support from external organisations such as CHT or DGSCHT – or both.  In small communities where there is only a small pool of people willing and able to volunteer their time, driving projects forward requires focused commitment that a paid member of staff can offer. The collaboration of a community-based project officer, working alongside the expertise of an outside organisation, is a real advantage, ensuring local engagement and accountability for a project that is realistic and achievable.

The funding mix for each project involved applying for, and managing, multiple grant schemes and in the main taking on loan financing also.  One group described their project as a ‘cocktail’ of funding, with each provider having different requirements that all needed to be met.  The Rural Housing Fund has been a major contributor to that funding mix, used effectively to purchase neglected properties, carry out renovation works or build new homes.  The feasibility fund has enabled many groups to fully test their plans and was very much welcomed. Experiences of engaging with the Fund have been positive, with grant officers providing practical support and assisting groups through the process.

Every community group interviewed confirmed they were keen to tackle further housing projects, using their new found confidence, skills and experience.  While the housing delivered met an existing need to an extent, there was still much to be done, and an acknowledgement that further investment in affordable housing is key to the future sustainability of their communities.  Several groups touched on the impact of Covid, with concerns raised that their rural community may be seen as an idyllic location for the investment in a second home, potentially impacting on house prices and availability of housing stock.

It was heartening to learn about these varied examples of community-led housing delivery, from reinvigorating neglected town centres through repurposing long-term abandoned properties to delivering passive houses standard new builds.  In very rural areas, where RSLs are disinclined to invest, the difference even one or two additional affordable homes can make to that community cannot be underestimated. Quality, secure affordable housing has a significant impact well beyond what it offers tenants, from job creation and population retention, to boosting a primary school roll and increased community cohesion and confidence.

Each group is committed to doing more: to meet the ongoing – or indeed increased – housing need in their community.  The groups all agreed that such further housing delivery would only be possible should there be a continuation of the Rural Housing Fund, particularly as other sources of capital funding appear to be ever diminishing in uncertain circumstances.  As it is, these plans will remain on hold unless there is confirmation that government investment in such community-led solutions will continue post March 2021.

Helen MacDonald

October 2020