Hannah Thaxter, a former newspaper editor who moved to Port Charlotte in 2019, has been researching aspects of island life for us this year. In the first in a series of essays, she looks at housing.
The shortage of housing is an issue that affects many people here, and therefore affects us a business looking to grow sustainably on the island.
She starts by looking at some history, then talks to some of our team about their first hand experiences, then looks further afield for perspectives and possible solutions, in this two part article.
Hannah Thaxter [HT]: Since man first walked onto Islay in the Stone Age, the population has risen and fallen like the waves and the winds which batter its shores.
There have always been many challenges for those who wanted to make it their home. Today the island is wrestling with how to balance its growth and success with the demand for affordable places to live.
The last 200 years have seen dramatic changes in the number of permanent inhabitants. Official records (the Census of 1831) show the island’s population peak at 14,992. In the 30 years between 1801 and 1831 census figures show the population of Islay went up by almost 80% – a rise attributed to the introduction of staple food source, the potato, and improved medical care. Back in1742 the population was just 4,000, meaning in less than a century it had quadrupled.
Today there are fewer people permanently living here than in 1742. The last census was in 2011 and shows a population of 3,228.
The recent resurgence of the whisky industry and accompanying interest in Islay malts, coupled with the enduring appeal of the island as a tourist destination, presents a different challenge – there are jobs here, but where will the workers live, and how can we sustain the growth?
According to a report called the Islay Strategic Housing Overview, published two years ago, which was the result of a survey of Islay businesses and community organisations, more affordable housing is required to attract and retain a skilled workforce. It’s the lack of local affordable housing which is restricting growth and expansion. One business responded: “We have five staff living in rooms in other peoples’ property, desperate for accommodation of their own.” People with the right skills either leave the island for the mainland or can get work here, but cannot find places to live.
But it’s not a lack of actual houses – there are more properties than families on Islay. Second homes represent 22% of the housing stock of Islay, Jura and Colonsay according to the last census – much higher than the 1.5% of Scotland as a whole.