KATE FORBES: 'Strath needs to get staffed – and here is how we start that'
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Last week in the parliament there was a debate on housing.
There is no dispute from me about the scale of the challenge across the Highlands, and particularly in Badenoch and Strathspey.
Time and again, my constituency office reflects on the fact that housing is at the top of our busy case load.
However, in my constituency I have a never-ending list of new housing developments to visit – because there is obvious evidence of the Scottish Government’s funding going into building houses and increasing supply.
Strathy readers will be particularly well informed about the trailblazing work locally by the Cairngorms Business Partnership.
Based on my years as finance minister and as a local MSP, it feels as though there has never been greater investment in improving the supply of housing of all tenures. So, why is there still a sense, particularly in the Highlands, that individuals find it very challenging to access so-called affordable housing or to get into the housing market?
Quite clearly, the challenges around accessing housing are inhibiting economic growth, undermining some of our public services and creating greater levels of homelessness in some of our communities.
Every business tells me that the biggest challenge is not its ambition or the opportunity, but accessing staff, which is linked to housing.
For some public services, the challenges of accessing housing for some of our key workers—whether they are nurses, doctors or teachers—are well documented, and they mean that key vacancies cannot be filled.
Last week I spoke to one of our social landlords, who was clear that homelessness policies need to be rural-proofed because how we prevent homelessness in urban areas might exacerbate the situation in rural areas.
For example, in Aviemore, lots of young workers find themselves having to live in Inverness and travel an hour to get to Aviemore. There might be a plentiful supply of one-bedroom housing, but, as soon as they find a partner or start a family, they are unable to stay.
That is the scale of the issue. I understand it and recognise it, but the solution is not only to continue to improve supply—but to see greater flexibility around policies. I will quickly mention five areas where I want to see such greater flexibility:
First, if we continue to have an overly fixed or rigid solution to the problem, we will run into the challenge that one size does not fit all. The solution in the middle of Edinburgh will not work in Laggan. Therefore, we have to be clear that policies are flexible.
Secondly, policies have to be community-led. Where a policy does not lend itself to what the community is trying to do, it is the policy and not the community that should change.
Thirdly, we need to listen to those who are out there, delivering. The Communities Housing Trust, for example, is second to none. It says that the policies and funding are largely already there but it is about using those policies and delivering solutions.
Fourthly, it is about planning. Why does it take between seven and 10 years to get six houses built? That does not add up. It does not make sense. There needs to be some sort of default in favour of planning.
Last, and most important, is land reform. We need to see more progress in making land available.
Kate Forbes (SNP) is MSP for Badenoch.