Home from Home: The housing tensions in Scotland's tourist hotspots
As peak tourist season approaches, tensions remain over housing in fragile communities
If all the cleaners in the Highlands and Islands went on strike, Hannah Fisher says, it would “bring down the whole holiday lettings sector”. They’re in short supply, she says, and so are in high demand.
Cleaners are an example of those being priced out of homes and off islands amidst the ongoing “buy to Airbnb” boom by investors who seldom visit themselves, Fisher says. “There’s nowhere for cleaners to live, and people don’t understand that,” the Mull musician says. “Are the owners going to come up from Glasgow or elsewhere to clean their own holiday houses? No. They have to have local people; if not, their business doesn’t work.”
Like many islanders, fiddler and singer Fisher is preparing for the summer season – peak tourism time and a period vital to the local economy. As is common in places like Mull, she and her partner rent out a garden cabin to holidaymakers to supplement their income. But while she loves hosting, she shares widespread concerns about the impact of the sector as a whole on rural communities like hers in Kintra, where only two of 11 homes in a row are occupied year-round.
Places from Arran to Westray suffer from a shortage of affordable residential housing, locals say, which pushes lower earners out and jeopardises the year-round sustainability of communities. “All islanders and people in rural areas talk about is holiday homes and the lack of homes,” Fisher says, “but it’s not that all holiday lets are a problem; we need them.”
Before the pandemic, tourism was worth £11.5bn to the national economy and accounted for 8.5 per cent of jobs, a figure rising to 43 per cent in some parts of the Highlands and Islands, where tourism, the local development body says, is “central to our way of life” and “sustains many of our local, regional and island economies and communities” to the tune of around £1.5bn. Despite renewed interest in domestic tourism as a result of curbs on international travel, the sector has suffered heavy losses in the past two years.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) puts the cost to its area at up to £584m for the 2020-21 financial year, and now there are ongoing challenges around the availability of staff and the rising cost of living. It’s a region with the second lowest median earnings in Scotland at £2,005 per month, according to the Office for National Statistics, with only the South of Scotland worse-off.
In that region, there’s a bid to build the tourism industry by, among other things, capitalising on the burgeoning appetite for motorhome trips by aping French ‘aires’, overnight stopping points with basic amenities and a safe place to sleep. Grants of up to £5,000-per-site are on offer to community organisations and private players to set up 22,000 stops in a move the council hopes will bring in up to £500,000 a year, potentially drawing traffic to the South West Coastal 300 touring route and away from the busy North Coast 500 in what the local authority says is “an opportunity to create a bit of extra income”.
And in the Highlands and Islands, HIE says it is “doing all we can to support the response and recovery measures to get our industry back on its feet,” which includes “meeting the increased demand for sustainable, authentic tourism experiences”.
That demand has helped drive the growth of the holiday lets sector as more people host paying guests in their spare rooms and second homes. Around half of all properties on Tiree are holiday houses, while the number of lets on Mull has increased by around 40 per cent over five years. In Harris, too, an estimated 40 per cent of housing stock is used for visitors, not residents, and prices in the Inner Hebrides have more than doubled from around £65,200 in 2004 to £123,000 in 2019.
It’s a similar picture on other islands and there are an estimated 25 Airbnb listings per 100 properties in north-west Skye, according to data compiled by The Guardian. That’s only slightly lower than the figure for Edinburgh’s Old Town, where 29 active listings were found per 100, although the US-owned firm disputed those numbers and the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers (ASSC) has said the short-term lettings market has been used as “a convenient scapegoat for longstanding failures in housing policy”, with more disruption caused by empty and second homes than tourist lets.
In January, Tiree crofter and IT professional Rhoda Meek launched isleHoliday.com, a homegrown holiday lettings portal that aims to balance the needs of visitors and communities by ploughing its proceeds back into local enterprises to develop a mixed economy. Some of the first users have been international, travelling from Cape Town in South Africa to stay in a shepherd’s hut on Unst. But with only 34 properties listed – including Fisher’s and part of Meek’s own farmhouse – it’s proving difficult to disrupt the market. Meek says that’s because off-island property owners feel they’re already “doing enough to support the community” and don’t want to pay the 12 per cent commission her outfit is asking for. The level is set higher than for local owners (10 per cent) and is 3-4 times higher than Airbnb’s take, but there’s an option for those “who are committed to our island communities” to pay more.
Meek has had a range of responses when asking what “doing enough” means. “It might be ‘we are bringing tourists to the island’; it might be ‘we pay a cleaner £50 a week’ so we’re keeping someone in work’,” she says. “I’m really struggling to find a way to talk to people about it. The vast majority of our sign-ups are owners on the islands who are acutely aware of the problem.
“I am really wondering whether we will have communities in the future who live here year-round, or pop-ups that serve coffee then deflate in the winter until the tourists come back again.”
At local level, a range of actions have been taken to ensure the islands remain places to live. In 2021, the Hebridean Housing Partnership restricted the sale of property on Uist to islanders or first-time buyers only amidst rocketing prices, with an ex-croft on Harris listed for £1.5m last year. And when the community-owned Isle of Eigg Trust put its Sandamhor Bothy up for sale last autumn, prospective buyers had to commit to being “an active contributing member of the community”.
There’s been action at national level too. Responding to such concerns about the erosion of available housing stock, as well as others about detrimental impacts of noise and anti-social behaviour, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation in January requiring the operators of short-term lets to apply for licences in what Housing Secretary Shona Robison called “a significant milestone”. Local authorities are required to establish a short-term lets licensing scheme by October, and existing hosts and operators will have until next April to apply for theirs. By July 2024, all short-term let properties will have to be licensed at an estimated cost of between £124 and £436 for a three-year period.
The Scottish Government is to work with councils to “review levels of short-term let activity in hotspot areas” next summer to “assess how the actions are working and whether any further measures are required”.
The scheme, Robison said, will “ensure short-term lets are safe and that allowing them to continue to make a positive impact on Scotland’s tourism industry and local economies while meeting the needs of local communities”. There have been other actions aimed at eliminating housing tensions too, such as a £43m pledge for the building of affordable homes in the Western Isles.
“We have hundreds of houses that are empty,” Fisher says. “It seems completely mad to be building more when they are there. The solution has to be in something that seems quite radical; stop allowing new-build holiday lets in certain areas. We’ve got this crisis, but you can’t even buy a plot of land now.”
Fisher worries that tourism is changing the “dominant narrative” of the islands to one that’s from a visitor’s perspective. “The views, picnics on ‘idyllic’ and ‘deserted’ beaches, the so-called ‘wilderness’ of these areas, ‘slow living’, ‘hideaways’, I could go on. They’re all just buzzwords that sell an idea. But that is not our narrative. Our narrative is one of deep roots in language, culture, music, stories, places – all things built and retained by our families and these things really mean something to us.
“You have the houses that were built by our grandfathers and great-grandfathers sitting empty, just a frame for a view now, whilst we, the grandchildren, live in the glebe, at best, or a damp caravan.”
According to an ASSC report published in 2020, there are more than 3,800 second homes in the Highland council area – the highest number of any local authority region. There are another 3,100 in Argyll and Bute, 2,400 in Fife and 1,800 in Edinburgh. For Na h-eilanan Siar, the number was around 800.
The membership body “supports sustainable tourism and the managed growth of the short-term letting sector in Scotland”. “Short term rentals are not new and have a long history in Scotland but recent political and media scrutiny has been almost exclusively negative in tone and does not provide an accurate picture of our sector and the role it plays in the tourist economy,” the report said. “There is a lack of quantitative evidence demonstrating that short-term lets are a significant or primary driver of increased rents, are affecting housing supply, or are pushing up house prices. When housing demand and the level of empty housing is set against the number of self-catering units, it suggests self-catering activity is not of a scale sufficient to affect housing supply issues in Scotland. Overall, the ASSC maintains that more needs to be done to address the problem of empty homes in Scotland when policymakers focus on tackling Scotland’s housing challenges. Ultimately, building too few homes remains the core cause of Scotland’s housing problems, not the holiday let sector.”
Meek sees the situation “from both sides”. With family from Tiree, she grew up in Edinburgh before coming back and now tries to “walk the line between being an islander and a returner”. “It’s maybe easy for me to say ‘we are all complicit in this’, including me. The message about the hollowing-out of communities is getting across now and people know, but it’s very hard to admit to ourselves that we are part of that problem.
“No one sets out to be part of the destruction of a rural community. People buy houses here because they love the place. Well, you do love it and we know that you individually are not to blame, but collectively this is a really big problem and we need to find a solution. Help us.
“We have been looking at the short-term lets legislation. We understand it’s coming in for good reasons, but how practical it’s going to be for the islands, I don’t know. I think it’s worth a try.”