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Attraction of Highlands is clear to see – but communities must be heard

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Holyrood Notebook by Ariane Burgess

Communities in the Highlands need to be at the heart of housing solution. Picture: DGS
Communities in the Highlands need to be at the heart of housing solution. Picture: DGS

When the Highlands are touched by the kind of sunshine we’ve experienced this summer, it’s obvious why this part of Scotland remains an enduringly popular tourist destination.

With many people still understandably hesitant to travel internationally, the Highlands are an attractive proposition for those looking for a holiday without leaving the UK.

Countless articles in lifestyle magazines and broadsheet supplements extol the virtues of the beautiful Highlands, but too often the region is treated like an empty wilderness rather than somewhere that’s home to many people and working communities.

There can be no doubt that tourism is an important part of the Highland economy and that visitors to the region bring with them many benefits. However, it’s equally clear that a burgeoning tourism industry brings serious challenges for Highland communities that we’ve not yet fully got to grips with. The need to strike an appropriate balance is pressing.

Website-based firms like Airbnb have facilitated a boom in short-term lets over the last few years, which allowed home owners to temporarily rent out their home, or part of it, to visitors with unprecedented ease. The vision there isn’t the problem, it gave lots of people in the Highlands welcome access to additional income. Sadly though, without proper regulation, Airbnb has morphed into something quite distinct from its original core idea.

In tourism hotspots the boom in short-term lets threatens to hollow out communities and turn them into resorts. As investors snap up properties to turn them into short-term lets rather than homes, prices inevitably rise, and it becomes impossible for a young person to buy a home. In turn this drives rural depopulation, an issue that has plagued the Highlands for a long time.

It’s not just short-term lets that have exacerbated the problems of depopulation, the Highlands' increasing popularity among people purchasing so-called second homes also plays a significant role.

That’s why the need for regulation is urgent and the Scottish Government’s ongoing consultation on the issue is a welcome first step towards developing a long-term solution.

The proposals suggest that local authorities should be responsible for regulation and enforcement on short-term lets. For that to work effectively local authorities will need to be adequately resourced and willing to work proactively with communities to ensure the regulation regime works.

There also needs to be a recognition that the increasing number of second homes is a driving force in the rural housing crisis and regulation is needed there as well. By bringing second homes into the planning system, local authorities will have an effective means of regulating stock and beginning to tackle the housing crisis.

Any successful solution will require extensive input from rural communities. There are many people who rent out their homes in rural areas in the original spirit of apps like Airbnb. Either renting out just a spare room or their whole house temporarily while they themselves holiday can provide a valuable extra income stream but still lets people remain firmly rooted in their communities.

They need to be heard, but they also need to listen to young people who have deep concerns about Airbnb and find themselves completely unable to find a home for themselves. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government and local authorities need to listen to both these groups. A solution which promotes sustainable tourism without gutting communities is possible if we work together.

Housing is a fundamental human right, it is not a luxury. First and foremost a house should be a home. If we allow them to be treated, first and foremost, as luxury getaways or mere investments then we put the future of the Highlands as a living breathing community in real danger.

Ariane Burgess, Scottish Greens MSP.
Ariane Burgess, Scottish Greens MSP.
  • Ariane Burgess is a Highlands and Islands list MSP for the Scottish Greens

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