A force to be reckoned with

WHEN it opened for business in 2012, it was lauded as the first public building in Scotland to be accredited with the exacting energy efficiency standard, Passivhaus.

Now operating 364 days a year – the only day it is closed being Christmas Day – the GALE Centre is a combination of cafe, visitor information desk, a gift shop and a social meeting place that has hosted the likes of tapestry and writing classes.

Next door, there is a farm shop and an air training corps – but they are private enterprises complementing the Wester Ross communities of Gairloch and Loch Ewe.

The Centre takes its name from the geography it covers and now employs 25 members of staff (including several with a health and wellbeing remit).

The Trust’s story stretches back to the mid-1990s and it provides several lessons for other Scots communities facing their own, local challenges.

In the case of the Gairloch and Loch Ewe community, now almost 30 years ago, it was the imminent closures of the local petrol station, primary school and tourist information service that sparked it into action.

When the community’s concerns then began to come to the attention of the local authority – then Ross and Cromarty, now Highland Council – it appointed a consultant to begin mapping possible solutions.

When one thing led to another, among the most significant results was the community setting up a Development Trust – GALE Action Forum – one of circa 350 (as noted here) now operating in Scotland.

An early discovery by the consultant was formal confirmation of what everyone already knew: there wasn’t enough ‘affordable’ housing in the area. And although some new housing was completed – by the Trust – to address the deficit, it has been a case of battling against a persistent tide of increasing house prices.

Second homes are popular in this part of Scotland, and, as mainly young people leave the area in search of less expensive housing, local businesses are concerned about how they can continue.

The new housing was built on land purchased by the Inverness-based Communities Housing Trust. This was another lucky break for the community.

Here, supporting them, was another external source of expertise and resources, in addition to the local authority. 

Not only was the CHT willing and able to purchase land, it was also prepared to broker deals that pulled several smaller plots into a larger whole, including a ten-year derelict site previously occupied by a hotel.

Says Trust managing director, Janet Miles, who has been with the organisation since 1999: “What’s more, the CHT put us under no pressure whatsoever to come up with an immediate plan for the land. That provided valuable thinking time.”

If it was ever thus, the issue of ‘affordable’ housing, it has also been an ever-present trying to navigate through what has been a tangle of possible funding sources and not inconsiderable bureaucracy. 

Among several other useful lessons, the Trust found itself blessed with expertise on its volunteer board of trustees: not least a member with experience of the building trade – which provided an invaluable watchful eye during the construction of the Centre.

A calm, considered approach towards fitting out the Centre also proved useful.

Adds Miles: “By postponing the installation of the cafe by almost year, it meant we were able to keep our programme within manageable phases.”

That’s not to say the Trust was improvising as it was going along. From the outset, it operated to a clear vision, which made it easier to recruit volunteer involvement, appeal for donations and avoid cul-de-sacs.

And then there were simple strokes of good fortune. When, in 2010, a young women pitched up, to work as a tourist information assistant during the summer, little did the group know, at the time, that she was an expert in Passivhaus. 

Cue a re-thinking of the original plans for the building.

Picture credit: GALE Action Forum

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