Scotland needs a more flexible approach to empty homes in rural areas

More empty homes in the countryside in Scotland could be returned to use if greater policy flexibility was available to recognise the unique circumstances of rural areas, it is claimed.

A one size fits all approach for urban and rural areas does not work, according to evidence from Scottish Land and Estates given to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee.

SLE Executive Director Sarah-Jane Laing explained that current policies are not conducive to addressing the empty homes issue and it needs to be recognised that the challenges of bringing homes back into use in rural Scotland can be quite different to urban areas.

‘Getting homes to a quality, modern standard can often be more expensive, especially when there is a lack of contractors and tradespeople which drives up costs and lengthens timescales for work. This is an even bigger issue when the value of the rental market in rural areas is below the cost of repairs,’ she said.

She pointed out that there needs to be greater flexibility by councils in working with landlords, especially in relation to the council tax levy. ‘Some councils are taking a very rigid approach while others are using discretionary powers to support rather than penalise those owners who are working to make empty homes habitable,’ she explained.

SLE said there were options available to both local and central government to increase the number of empty homes coming back into use. For example, some councils have employed empty homes officers. ‘This resource has been of real value. These officers understand the issues faced by landlords and can also access expertise internally within councils that can be difficult to contact from the outside,’ said Laing.

She added that the Rural Empty Property Grants and Empty Homes Initiative Grants in rural areas have also been seen as a success. ‘Small changes to these schemes could incentivise development and refurbishment. Used alongside other intervention measures this support could help return more homes to use,’ she concluded.

Meanwhile, the Law Society of Scotland has told MSPs that the Planning (Scotland) Bill is currently unworkable and risks adding significant additional costs on local authorities, developers and communities.

‘Planning is a matter which affects all communities and it is crucial that our laws are clear and understood by everyone involved in the planning process. Throughout the Bill, there are instances of multiple amendments to the same sections and, as a result, the bill is now difficult to follow with complex and contradicting provisions,’ said Alastair McKie, convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s Planning Law Sub-Committee.

The society also warned that the bill in its current state will have drastic resource and financial implications. ‘The bill has been significantly amended resulting in around 60 additional duties on planning authorities and 25 on Scottish Ministers. The Scottish Government’s own revised cost-benefit analysis of the amended legislation shows that unless further changes are made to the bill, there will be substantial additional costs involved in the planning process. We are concerned by the changes which could result in costs of up to £74 million for planning authorities and up to £12 million for local communities,’ McKie added.