Rural empty property – what are the options?

This article explores some options to improve the Scottish rural economy by providing affordable workplaces as well as affordable homes, one of the campaigns being promoted by Scottish Rural Action.

 We are very interested in hearing about any affordable home and/or workplace projects, whether they were successful or unsuccessful. The aim is to build a knowledge base so that any community body that intends to follow the same route can read and learn what may be the best way for them. Please add your experience as a blog after this paper; it would be useful to have contact details if you are open to providing guidance.


As we know, the Scottish rural economy is in decline due to a number of factors, such as lack of jobs, poor or non-existing transport, poor communications, closure of schools, and lack of affordable homes.

Conversely, rural decline has ensured that there are now more empty rural commercial properties than ever. These can take many forms, usually shops, workshops, warehouses and farm steadings.

But help may be at hand. The Scottish Government aims to provide access to superfast broadband to all of rural Scotland by 2021. This is highly commendable and essential and should ideally lend itself to the promotion of rural small businesses such as accountants, designers, writers, etc. who can work from home, as well as increased opportunities for new rural based retail outlets. Any new business can also provide further employment opportunities for home-based workers.

But perhaps an equally relevant element for the stimulation of the rural community is to provide a workplace that can be used in a variety of ways – maybe as an equipment store, a base for a local handyman, plumber, electrician, builder or decorator; a vehicle repair shop or a studio for an artist or potter – a valuable asset whatever the use.

So, apart from affordable homes, an affordable workplace combined with superfast broadband could help the rural economy to thrive again.  This may well be an ideal time to start looking at options?

Planning Law to be changed – will this help?

The current Scottish Planning Policy, established in 2014, introduces a presumption in favour of development that makes efficient use of existing capacities of land, buildings and infrastructure that contributes to sustainable development.

Following an extended period of consultation, on 4th December 2017 the Scottish Government published the Planning (Scotland) Bill, setting out its proposed changes to the Scottish planning system.  Its aim is to provide an improved system of development planning, giving people a greater say in the future of the places where they live and supporting delivery of planning development. 

The Position Paper on this Bill does follow through on the recommendation that communities should be able to produce place plans for their area, as well as increased obligations on developers to carry out pre-application consultation.

There will be more opportunity for communities to incorporate Local Place Plans into the Local Development Plan. However, it is important to be aware that there will be a statutory link in the process between development planning and community planning.

Given that the bill will become law in the relatively near future, it will provide the opportunity for community councils and development trust to have an input into the way their area will progress, rather than having little or no opportunity to alter things as they currently stand. Further information on this will evolve in due course.

Going further, the new Community Right to Buy provisions will enable community organisations to register an interest to buy land/property even though it’s not on the market, or to buy neglected and/or abandoned land where it can be demonstrated that it will be used for sustainable development for the benefit of the community. The secondary draft legislation is currently under consultation.

So what are the options and opportunities?

Given that there is a pressing need to generate rural incomes to ensure long term community survivability, the time seems right for charities, community organisations and development trusts to take ownership of neglected properties of all descriptions.

How is this done?

Well, it seems that the way forward is to obtain security of tenure on a property either by purchase or long term lease. But the latter has potential issues if not read properly and is not recommended.

As intimated earlier, the purchase of a rural home tends not to be affordable for rural workers, especially with a young family (part of the reason for rural decline).  So it will be necessary to look for cheaper, more affordable options; either a new build or property requiring refurbishment of some description.

If property is not readily available for sale in your area you’ll need another option:

Scottish Empty Homes Partnership

For the last 8 years the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which is funded by the Scottish Government and hosted by Shelter Scotland, has encouraged the restoration of long term empty buildings in both urban and rural locations. The Partnership does this by working closely with local authorities to employ a dedicated Empty Homes Officer, and providing training, support and mentoring to that officer when in post. The buildings can be brought back to life in a variety of ways including financial help (where available), advice and assistance, and linking to council schemes such as Private Sector Leasing, for example. The owner could be a private individual or legally constituted body, including Development Trusts, Registered Social Landlords, charities and developers.

There are Empty Homes Officers in 19 out of the 32 councils in Scotland. These have helped bring empty homes back into use; from just 4 in 2012, up to 859 in 2017. Since the Partnership began, more than two and a half thousand empty properties have been brought back into use nationwide. Interestingly, 97% of homes brought back to life have been in areas where there is a dedicated Empty Homes Officer. The link to a list of Empty Homes Officers is at the end of the section.

The Partnership also provides an Empty Homes Advice Service

As well as pure advice, the Partnership also:

  • provide empty homes advice to empty home owners, neighbours and organisations interested in empty homes work.
  • make referrals to their network of local Empty Homes Officers working in Scotland’s Local Authorities.
  • follow up on empty homes reports and in some cases pursue empty homes case work in areas without a local empty homes service (to demonstrate what is possible)
  • provide information on where empty homes grants and loans are available throughout the country and link into local Empty Homes Matchmaker Schemes.

Here is the link to the contact details for councils that have asked to be listed on the Shelter website.

If you don’t see your area get in touch with the Empty Homes Adviser on 0344 515 1941 or email

However, in many areas empty homes work does not apply to workplaces per se. If in doubt, check with your local authority.

What is the way forward?

It would be foolish to suppose that increasing the number of affordable homes and workplaces in rural Scotland will be easy; the fact is that it is not easy at all. There are many factors that will stand in the way of a successful scheme; tenacity and determination are vital qualities needed by the applicants.

Funding is the greatest headache. I have heard that in one recent case it took many failed tries before14 successful funding applications were approved and an empty homes project was success. Given that most, if not all, of the community organisations established to regenerate rural communities will probably be development trusts, The Development Trust Association Scotland (DTAS) is recommended as the first place to go for help communities explore / establish a development trust.

DTAS can also provide support for the community ownership of public assets through COSS     ( )  or give advice / support communities who want to use community share issues to buy / develop assets ( ).

The Scottish Land Fund supports community ownership and management of land and land assets. Their advisers can also give advice, particularly on non-public assets:

Contacting the Empty Homes Officer, if there is one in your area, is another possible route an interested organisation could take; he/she will be able to provide guidance on the best way forward and help determine if there are funding sources available.


There is no doubt that there is a shortage of affordable homes in rural areas; there is also a shortage of suitable workplaces for trades and self-employed persons.

With the promised access to high speed broadband into all areas by 2021, there appears to be an ideal opportunity to bring back or maintain what is left of rural communities and press for the restoration of redundant buildings into homes and workplaces.

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting rural life, rural communities and the rural economy. Current planning regulations suggest the need for sustainability and should not stand in the way of a planning application for a change of use if a good case is made.  The proposed new planning procedures should enable communities to be actively involved in mapping the way forward for rural communities; to reverse rural decline and encourage rural sustainability.

The Empty Homes Officer, or the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership if none is available locally, will be able to help identify suitable abandoned properties for conversion into affordable homes. Some of these redundant buildings may be suitable for conversion into workplaces.

Funds are available from a wide variety of places, but it will need a skilled determined effort to secure amounts needed. Not an easy task.

Any project that wishes to restore empty property into affordable homes or workplaces will need a dedicated and determined effort; it will not happen overnight!



We are very interested in hearing about any affordable home and/or workplace projects,whether they were successful or unsuccessful. The aim is to build a knowledge base so that any community body that intends to follow the same route can read and learn what may be the best way for them. Please add your experience as a reply or post in our forum; it would be useful to have contact details if you are open to providing guidance.

Wishing you the best of luck with your project.


Gordon Harrison

Gordon Harrison

Director of SRA and the Ettrick and Yarrow Development Co. Chair of Ettrick and Yarrow Community Council Member of the Borders LEADER LAG for the 2014-2020 period. Gordon is fully committed to supporting rural life, rural communities and the rural economy.

3 thoughts on “Rural empty property – what are the options?

  • 28th February 2018 at 9:54 pm

    Hello Gordon
    I have been working in the social housing sector for the last 15 years and would be keen to set up a rural Housing Association, given the opportunity. In my spare time I have spent many hours on Google earth, identifying abandoned rural buildings, undeveloped steadings, empty cottages, unused walled gardens, former crofts and farms, shells of buildings or foundations, all of which should be able to obtain planning. The big difficulty appears to be ownership, be it farmers, estate owners, or developers.
    I have identified well into 4 figures of potential sites and would love to see some of these ‘sites’ re-instated.

    Happy to meet to show you and discuss what could be done with this info if you like.

    Norrie MacPhail
    5/6 Bruntsfield Gdns
    Edinburgh EH10 4DX
    T: 07973 545059

    • Gordon Harrison
      7th March 2018 at 11:42 am

      Hello Norrie
      Sorry for not getting back to you sooner. I know from experience that identifying suitable property is not easy and if you can help and perhaps inspire others then all your efforts may not be in vain. I admire your efforts and would be pleased to meet with you to see your findings and explore possibilities.

      I live near Selkirk, in the Borders, not far from you, so a meeting may be the best way forward. I’ll call you in the evening shortly.

  • 6th March 2018 at 10:47 am

    Have a look at the Rural Resettlement Ireland project which was set up in the 1980s and worked to rehouse families from inner city Dublin to mainly rural West Clare.


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