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NICKY MARR: Housing crisis impacting Highland staff shortages

By Nicky Marr

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How to solve the Highland housing problem to help struggling businesses?
How to solve the Highland housing problem to help struggling businesses?

Ask any business – or any employer for that matter – what their current biggest challenge is, and right up with increased costs of trading, will be staff shortages.

How can any organisation run effectively without staff to do the work? Answer: it can’t.

Brexit drove away the hundreds of Poles, Estonians and Romanians who were the hard-working backbone of many of our successful hospitality businesses. Those staff are now working hard back at home, boosting the economy of their own countries, while our hotels and restaurants are having to turn guests away because they don’t have the staff to look after them.

Can’t our locals work in hospitality? For the money offered, many won’t or can’t afford to. And businesses can’t attract new staff into the area because there is simply nowhere affordable for them to live.

The success of the NC500 route and the increase in UK staycationers (apologies for that dreadful word, but you know what I mean) has created tremendous opportunities, but problems too. More tourists creates a demand for more accommodation, so houses and cottages are being snapped up for holiday homes, pricing locals out of the market.

You can’t blame people for wanting to make a buck. But it’s a delicate balancing act between the future viability of our precious rural communities, and the desires of everyone else in the world to get a selfie on the glistening sands of Achmelvich beach in the morning, and another outside Smoo Cave in the afternoon.

With more jobs being created all the time – a potential 25,000 for the Inner Moray Firth with Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Port, an announced £300 million investment in Ardersier Port, plus Japanese investment in a new Highland sub-sea cable factory – who is going to fill these posts? And where will they all live and school their children?

In its Strategic Housing Investment Plan, Highland Council pledged to build 660 affordable new homes every year. Sounds ideal. But when you realise there are already 9000 people on the housing waiting list, 660 a year will barely touch the sides.

And that 660 a year has just been reduced to 500 new homes. A dearth of affordable land, and prohibitive construction costs have made the original targets impossible to achieve.

That’s a pretty obvious indication that businesses can’t – and probably shouldn’t – rely on the public sector to solve all of their problems.

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Is anyone else old enough to remember accommodation blocks for staff? My mum talks fondly of her summers working in Highland hotels in the 1960s – summers where she spent her days and evenings cleaning bedrooms and waitressing, and late nights climbing out of the window of the staff accommodation to drink whisky and dance till dawn at village ceilidhs.

In Inverness, The Bishop’s Palace, now part of Eden Court, spent decades of its life as nurses’ accommodation for the hospital along the road, and in my own teenage years I spent summers in staff accommodation attached to hotels in Switzerland. That was just like living in student halls. Our wages reflected that we were living rent-free, and – crucially – I woke up just 100 yards from work on those many mornings I slept in.

Highland businesses are increasingly borrowing these old solutions to bypass today’s housing crisis. Owners of The Seaforth Hotel and Restaurant in Ullapool recently bought the Moorfield Motel to house their staff. Parklands Care Homes, faced with the same problem, have permission to build staff flats in Milton of Leys, and North Coast Hotels are buying local properties for their staff too.

It’s not a perfect solution, I know. Not every employer with vacancies on the books can offer tied accommodation. But surely, it’s better than turning away business? Those who can, will reap the rewards. And staff accommodation at Raigmore – or at the campus across the road – might help ease shortages there too.

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