Isobel Thompson, Westray Development Trust
In the 2011 census, for the first time in 110 years since our island records began in 1881, the Westray population increased. Now categorised as a stable population, with marginal growth, the island of Westray once again feels like it is thriving. Looking around our island home at the northern edge of the Orkney archipelago as we get closer to the 2021 census we can feel the change around us. As of May 2019 there were 84 children at Westray Junior High School and Nursery with a further 6 Westray youth boarding in mainland Orkney to complete their 5th and 6th years. This means that 15% of the island’s 588 population is under 16 years old.
Despite expanding employment and economic opportunities in Westray including the establishment of Kalisgarth Care Centre in 2005 and Cooke Aquaculture expanding a Salmon Farm off the Westray coast, the availability of affordable housing has not kept up. Westray has managed to retain many of its young folk born on the island but is now facing difficulty in its ability to attract more to move here without increased housing provision. Much of the already limited social housing was bought by tenants many years ago and little was done to replace them. As a result while there are properties available to buy there are very few to rent long-term. Those that are available are quickly snapped up by incomers looking to rent before they commit to buying on the island or by young people who can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. An example of the housing issue is single young people renting 2-3 bedroom properties leaving nowhere for incoming families because there are no 1 bedroom properties for young people to go to instead.
With the local council underfunded and struggling to deliver services across 20 inhabited Orkney Islands the task has fallen to island communities to answer their own housing needs. Development Trusts across Orkney have benefitted from Scottish Land Fund and Rural & Islands Housing Fund grants to develop community-owned housing projects. However community housing projects take a very long time to get going as often inexperienced volunteers work to apply for funding, struggle to purchase land, engage lawyers and manage a housing development. The housing that communities need now will not be seen for several years. Once these community housing projects across the islands begin to be completed one by one will we see another population boost? Then we might just be able to confidently say, the tide of depopulation has turned and it is not turning back.