Jenny Davies: Key workers have nowhere to stay - and it’s threatening the services in our communities

Jenny Davies: Key workers have nowhere to stay - and it’s threatening the services in our communities

Jenny Davies

Jenny Davies, associate director at Scottish Futures Trust, details the issues faced by key workers struggling to find affordable places to live and highlights some example solutions from around the country.

Key workers are an integral part of our communities – from caring for our grandparents, teaching our children, to building our homes. Without them, our society simply would not be able to function.

There is no singular definition of a key worker – it is decided at a council level and can include anyone from the private or public sector who is vital to an area’s essential services. What’s deemed essential in a city will often be different to what is needed in a remote rural area.

No matter how they are defined, there is growing concern that when it comes to the attraction and retention of key workers, lack of housing is a barrier. With an increase in the declaration of housing emergencies across Scotland, this problem is likely to add to an already difficult situation.

Those worries were evident when I attended the Rural Housing Scotland conference in February, where concerns were raised about the need for and delivery of vital key worker housing in many rural and island areas. The shortage of both short-term accommodation for people such as seasonal workers and mid to long-term housing for others in both the public and private sector was consistently highlighted.

This comes at a time when organisations like Scotwind and the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport need to bring additional workers to these rural areas. These communities also want this influx of business, so the lack of homes to allow workers to come and stay is a real issue.

Keeping essential workers in our communities comes down to three main things: affordability, availability and proximity of homes. High quality, affordable housing that is close to workplaces obviously lies at the heart of key worker retention. But the right infrastructure – such as good public transport links and school provision - is essential too.

In some places, high house prices coupled with relatively low income makes it difficult for key workers, particularly younger ones, to purchase homes from the open market. Providing properties for mid-market rent is one potential solution to this. However, mid-market rental is intended to be a stepping stone – but high rent levels mean that fewer tenants can make the move to their next home. This stagnation compounds the issue of housing shortages.

While Community Development Trusts and community-led housing organisations have been looking at ways to develop and provide key worker housing, this tends to be on a small scale. Much more needs to be done to meet growing demand – and we need to get creative.

Looking at repurposing existing empty town centre buildings can rejuvenate communities while providing a feeling of greater safety within neighbourhoods – and these homes can be particularly attractive for key workers as they are often close to their place of work.

For example, South of Scotland Community Housing (SOSCH) and the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) have increased community housing by converting empty town centre buildings, such as a former police station and hotel, into homes.

When councils are producing local development plans, they need to be thinking about key worker housing allocations. Policies that deal with the allocation of housing to key workers need to be consistent with the local authority’s wider planning policies on housing, including affordable housing.

I am part of a team at the Scottish Futures Trust currently exploring the potential for councils to deliver market level housing for rent and sale in areas where there is market failure. We have considered different ways the occupancy of the homes can be restricted once built, including rural housing burdens to prioritise workers.

We also need to address the question of whose responsibility it is to provide key worker housing – the employer or the local authority? Is it time to look at more partnership working? In a great example of this, the Cairngorm Business Partnership, Highland Council and Highland Housing Alliance worked together to support the delivery of housing for employees of local businesses. Members of the business partnership paid a small fee to allow their employees to take priority for mid-market rental properties.

We need to prioritise attracting and retaining key workers in the communities that need them most, by ensuring they have somewhere to call home.

Share icon
Share this article: