Lack of rural housing is crippling businesses

The train pulled into the small station of Dunkeld alongside an abandoned station building. I had arrived in rural Perthshire for the  Rural Housing Scotland conference 2023.

The walk to the Dunkeld House Hotel was longer than I expected – 3 miles – but well worth it. First over the elegant Thomas Telford Bridge where toll riots took place against the toll charged by the 4th Duke of Atholl to recoup the costs of construction. Then along Bishop’s Walk beside the river Tay, planted by the 4th or ‘Planter Duke’ in the 19th century in the  grounds of Dunkeld House.

The informal chat before the dinner was possibly the highlight of the event, as is so often the case, especially since I had only met most of the people remotely before, from the shoulders up. I was surprised how difficult it was to recognise someone when faced with their whole body.

Next morning, I recrossed Dunkeld Bridge, which had been carrying traffic since it opened in 1809. to the Birnam Arts and Conference Centre. I remember this well from the SEDA visit in about 2005 when a SEDA member, Robin Baker, of Robin Baker Architects, who converted and extended the original Victorian building, showed us around. It still looks wonderful and is obviously a very popular community venue.

The day started with an Irish double-act from Jake Ryan of the Irish Government and Stephen Carolan of the Western Development Commission. They described the broadband hub network which was recently rolled out across rural Ireland. The project was impressive, with over 300 hubs located in anything from shared community rooms to large enterprises, supporting remote workers and acting as incubators for startups. The network has revitalised many rural areas including remote islands and was the envy of everyone in the room. The project has naturally had generous financial support from the EU.

This was followed by an overview of Highlands and Islands employment opportunities, economic prosperity and housing availability from Morven Fancey, from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Many businesses including salmon fishing, wind farms, the Sutherland spaceport and  the Cromarty Firth Freeport are setting up or expanding in this area with no shortage of jobs but, due to a lack of housing, finding it difficult to attract the necessary workforce.

Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Shona Robison, made a brief appearance before dashing to an  STV interview. It was good of her to attend the conference, but many felt that her time might have been better spent answering questions rather than giving us a party political speech.

Photo: Rural Housing Scotland

There were two breakout workshops during the day. In each case I selected the least architectural – both were about energy. Power Circle is a social enterprise that helps social-housing providers and social enterprises choose and manage the most appropriate smart, low-carbon energy system and helps steer them through a myriad of obstacles. As Power Circle’s project development manager Kenneth Easson said, they are energy type agnostic which, given the changing views on energy source and different needs of different buildings, is probably very sensible. My second workshop was given by Gillian Campbell from the Existing Homes Alliance. Gillian described ways in which the Scottish Government might help rural communities move to zero emissions heating. In her case it was a fabric first proposal.

The lesson from these workshops was that we need more time to do things properly. At present the Scottish Government seems to have a knee-jerk reaction to addressing climate change ricocheting from one topic to another. Little time seems to be devoted to the overall effect of how these policies interrelate. We were told that builders will need to be trained quickly to implement the retrofits needed.

However, I highlighted my experience of being called to a rural house west of Edinburgh that had been retrofitted with a grant from the energy company obligation (ECO3) scheme. But the approved builders had done a “cowboy” job using an impermeable membrane inside a Georgian stone cottage. I was appalled, especially given that the client was trying to do the right thing. Everything had to be ripped out again. It is examples like this that demonstrate that these things should not be rushed. There is the potential for large-scale job creation throughout Scotland but the trades people must be trained properly and, if necessary, experts consulted who understand the complexities of thermodynamics involved in the retrofitting of existing buildings.

The other common theme was that one size does not fit all, not only in relation to retrofitting homes but also in the creation of new homes. Each case has to be looked at individually. Mass housing is not the answer to sustainable rural communities.

However, where the two workshops differed was that Power Circle advocated installing a renewable heat system first, whereas the Existing Homes Alliance advocated fabric (insulation, double-glazing and draft-proofing) first. I have always supported fabric first approach but Kevin has a point – it would be prohibitively expensive to retrofit every home to the standard we would like. The cost of retrofitting all social housing in the UK to zero carbon standards is currently on track to hit £104 billion, according to Inside Housing. Given that the social housing sector is approximately 23% of total housing, we will need at least £450bn – nearly three times the gross domestic product of Scotland (£162bn in 2020). Is this realistic? One delegate said there is a magic money pool when needed (think the banking bailouts of 2007-9 and the furlough and other support schemes of 2020-22) and we should be pushing the government to find one.

This conundrum – installing renewable energy, or retrofitting first – is just the sort of debate I do not hear coming from either the UK or Scottish Governments. Discussions like this need to be had at government level with proper research and consideration of all factors – existing labour force, the training required, loads on the electricity grid, etc. The Rural Housing Scotland conference provided a relaxed and stimulating forum to debate these sorts of issues.

I can’t end without talking about lunch at the Birnam Centre – a wonderful spread, with copious numbers of salads and home-made bakes, all of which were irresistible. The plates were piled high – more time for that face-to-face chatting we have so missed. Thanks to Rural Housing Scotland for a very stimulating day.

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