EMMA Roddick, Ariane Burgess, Kate Forbes, Maree Todd, Jenni Minto, Fergus Ewing, Richard Lochhead, Alasdair Allan.

You have all just been elected as MSPs for the Highlands and Islands.


Some of you are old hands, some new. Some are ministers, some backbenchers.

All are members of progressive, independence-supporting parties committed to improving the lives of local people.

So, here’s the thing. You are failing them.

I ken that sounds a bit melodramatic.

But there’s no other way to convey the seriousness of the situation facing Highland communities with massive potential but no local housing – areas like Aviemore and the Cairngorms National Park which are quietly on the brink of meltdown.

In one village, Boat of Garten, around 65% of houses are short-term lets or second homes. That means nowhere to stay for full-time locals, key workers or short-term seasonal staff and increasingly no-one to service the area’s booming tourist trade.

READ MORE: Lesley Riddoch: Why nature lovers should care about land reform

Due to a “severe shortage of staff” Aviemore’s popular Winking Owl restaurant has announced on Facebook that it’s “drinks only” while they “try to recruit the best kitchen team”. The Old Post Office café in Kincraig has switched to a takeaway service – for the same reason.

Its owner Toni Vastano tweeted: “I’ve worked in hospitality for 35yrs. Cafes Bars Restaurants and hotels need staff urgent! #BrexitReality lack of workforce, #AirBB. No affordable accommodation locally – final nail in the coffin for many of us! Things are desperate. Scotgov we need help!”

A local activist and SNP branch official told me: “Things are absolutely desperate. Some hospitality outlets are closing their kitchens due to no staff. Lots of tourists are complaining about queues. There’s a 45-minute wait for a fish supper from the local chip shop. A mate and I had a meal at one local restaurant – it was an hour from arrival to the first pint because just two poor guys were trying to run an entire restaurant. EU workers have stayed away – job vacancies are being advertised on social media every day.”

Sharp practice hasn’t helped. One group of “solid, dependable seasonal staff” found the price of their rented accommodation raised by owners keen to recoup Covid losses. Now they’ve gone to work elsewhere.

There’s even worry that the new Aviemore hospital will struggle to find staff. Some will doubtless arrive as neighbouring health centres close – but the scope of treatment in the new Aviemore hospital is wider than existing provision, and that means more staff. With nowhere to stay.

It’s desperately ironic.

The National:

Aviemore, Badenoch and Strathspey is a fabulous area – the only place to be if you are a serious mountaineer or snow sports enthusiast. Yet there is absolutely no way for low or middle income earners to live there. And this is not a new problem.

Pre-Covid, unemployment locally was less than 1%. There simply haven’t been enough locals to fill vacancies in one of Scotland’s most scenic areas for a decade. And that’s mostly because there are not enough affordable homes.

Of course, Brexit has been the tin lid – deterring European seasonal workers. But even if they were still coming, where would they live?

This is not just a little local Aviemore difficulty.

According to the Highlands and Islands Federation of Small Businesses, around half of all employers have insufficient staff and half have cut services, opening hours or both to cope.

READ MORE: Major reforms recommended as handful of families own half of Scotland’s land

What about raising wages? Well, you can increase pay rates as much as you like – but there are no locals available to do the work.

Villagers report that housing agents are going door-to-door asking if any property is for sale for cash buyers. Homes that do become available are being bought by distant bidders, sight unseen. Affordable homes – intended for locals – have wound up on the open market and become second homes. Lockdown has heightened demand and ironically better standards of broadband have encouraged an influx of more affluent southern home-workers – pricing locals out.

According to one local councillor, land prices have been inflated, pricing social housing bodies out of the market in favour of private developers building four-bedroom “hot-tub houses”.

HIGHLAND Council appears to have few tools in the kit-bag. It placed a Compulsory Purchase Order on one derelict local building but the process has already taken years. Holyrood legislation to create an easier Compulsory Sales Order has twice been postponed by the Scottish Government.

Meanwhile, there’s soaring demand for the social housing that does exist. More than half of all social lets in Inverness during 2020 were to folk citing homelessness, (46% across Highland region). Why is there emergency housing demand on this scale given the Covid ban on evictions?

In Applecross, it’s a similar story as locals prepare to vote on removing the west coast peninsula from North Coast 500 marketing material. Why? Locals in the stunning but empty landscapes across the zig-zagging Bealach na Ba are absolutely overwhelmed with tourists – having accidents on hairpin bends, blocking single-track access to shops, doctors and hospitals.

The population is too small and the infrastructure too basic to cope with unregulated, surging tourist demand. It’s crazy.

The Highlands are beautiful, popular, energy rich and increasingly economically viable. Many young folk would give their eye teeth to live there. But 20 years after the first Land Reform legislation, that still isn’t an option.

There was a chance to change the way land is valued – but the SNP voted with the Tories to defeat Andy Wightman’s (below) amendment. Today, a small plot in Ullapool is on the market for offers over £175,000.

The National: Andy Wightman

Highlanders are stoic. They expect little and are rarely disappointed. They’ve learned there is no point complaining. But that doesn’t let MSPs off the hook.

These are epic problems of land and housing supply that only Scottish Government intervention can fix.

The Scottish Government will claim its Short Term Lets legislation is cantering to the rescue.

Their new licensing scheme will let councils create “control areas” from April 2022 where planning permission is needed to change an entire property into a short-term let.

But this is optional and local, not a mandatory and universal change.

There’s widespread doubt that Highland Council will bite the bullet and impose any licensing schemes. Half of Highland councillors are involved in tourism or short-term lets and the council’s currently run by a coalition of independents, Labour and LibDems who’ve expressed misgivings about even this limited attempt at control.

What can be done? In all honesty, very little.

Highland Yessers will keep putting independence and the SNP first. Complete inaction might result in more votes for Alba next time round.

READ MORE: Michael Fry: Land reform debate must create consensus instead of conflict

But meantime, will the urban Greens make rural housing and serious land reform a deal-breaking priority?

Will SNP conference – online in mid-August – make the blindest bit of difference with Peter Murrell in control and only a fraction of the old “awkward squad” on the NEC?

In truth, there is no viable political threat left to make. No pressure that can be exerted on the SNP to get rural housing fixed fast.

No party to push for Nordic-style legislation to control the relentless growth of first homes bought to become second homes.

The cavalry isn’t coming.

And that’s shameful – because it’s sapping the will to live in large parts of rural Scotland and sapping the belief that independence will produce real change. All that’s left is personal conscience.

If the new cohort of SNP and Green Highland MSPs believe they can do no more to stave off depopulation, fine. If they know deep down that’s not true, they must act.