The ‘affordable’ housing answer that has blown in on the wind

IT helps to be a community close by a trio of wind farms, whose owners are committed to paying an annual community dividend.

And blowing into the bank account of the Fort Augustus and Glenmoriston Community Company has been an income stream sufficient to largely pay for over a dozen ‘affordable’ houses – housing for local people at the social rent (lower scale) level operated by the local authority, Highland Council.

FAGCC is a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status, set up in 2007 by the local community council to specifically receive wind farm benefit funds (and a little extra from a couple of local hydro-electric schemes).

But the story of the community company’s foray into affordable housing provision was not just relatively easy access to external funding from a handful of renewable energy operators.

As current chief officer, Ian Leaver, explains, it helped considerably that there was both the driving force and accountancy expertise of the community company’s chair.

“The  community council worked very hard to have the wind farm money come to us specifically, rather than an external foundation to which we would have to apply for funding – which was a possibility. And it helps that some of the wind farm monies can be drawn down in advance.”

The housing – built on 19 acres of land, purchased four years ago on the back of a successful Community Right-to-Buy bid – followed the drawing up of a community action plan, commissioned by FAGCC.

Begins Leaver: “We struggle, like all parts of the Highlands, with the price of property being inflated by the demand for second homes and retirement properties. With [the charity] Rural Housing Scotland, a housing needs survey was carried out, which confirmed our suspicions. 

“There was also the Highland-wide snapshot of housing need, the Highland Housing Register.

“And all of us knew, anecdotally, of families struggling to manage in the private rented sector.”

Thus, Caledonian Court comprises 12 highly energy-efficient homes, each with air source heat pumps: 4 x two-bedroom flats, 4 x two-bedroom houses, 2 x three-bedroom houses and 2 x two-bedroom ‘accessible’ bungalows. 

There are two other properties on the books (in a converted former school) and an ongoing Community Asset Transfer application for a property (owned by Scottish Canals) to create a further two homes.

Like many housing organisations, FAGCC allocates its housing on a ‘points’ basis, with an emphasis on young people undertaking or having recently undertaken vocational training. It means that two of the 12 new properties are currently occupied by former apprentices. 

“We are not a registered social housing provider, we are still a private landlord, but our principles are reflected in the relatively low rents we charge, and also in our hope that our tenants stay for as long as they want.

“We had the land long before we decided to build the homes; it had been our original intention to maintain the land for heritage and natural amenity – with a low-key workshop and community garden development alongside a small amount of housing – but the need for significantly more housing became overwhelming.

“We activated a Community Right-to-Buy application on the land, and was supported, financially, to acquire it (for around £200,000) by the Scottish Land Fund. 

“It was before my time, as chief officer, but since the SLF supports a purchase like ours up to 80 per cent of the value, I am imagining we were in a position – thanks to the wind farm money – to easily make up any of the difference.”

Ideas were sought, locally, as to how the housing might be designed. “But there basically came a point when we had to hand over the project over to a professional team, with the community company board providing oversight.

“Board decisions are on a majority basis. We believe it’s a quicker and more efficient way of making progress than alternative ways of making decisions.”

The whole project – including the actual building of the homes – was financed (to the tune of around £3m) courtesy of a patchwork of sources, including not just the aforementioned wind farm monies and the Scottish Land Fund, but also the Scottish Rural Housing Fund, Highland Council and bank loans.

Since some of the wind farm monies was for particular elements of the project – such as the provision of air source heat pumps – the complexion of the funding sources went deeper than might be initially envisaged.

And here is where having a community company chair, who happened also to be an accountant , came in handy.

“It was quite the funding package that was pulled together and, for that, we have the now former community company chair to thank for that. She pretty much pulled everything together, single-handedly.

“‘Harry’ has since moved to another part of the country, but the systems and controls she has put in place have proven to be hugely valuable – not least because we are quite a lean organisation: there is the voluntary board of trustees, I am full-time, we have a part-time office manager, Karen, and we employ a team of ‘community caretakers’, to keep the area looking beautiful and to carry out small, environmental improvement projects.

“Having long-term tenants reduces the amount of administration. But I would say this to other community groups with similar ambitions to ours: what’s important is to find someone who is willing to do the hard yards; they don’t need to have a particular financial or legal expertise, although it can help.”

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Picture credit: Ian Leaver