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Consultants commissioned to help local businesses devise strategies to boost the economy have suggested creating a new township on Barra.

Strategic Scientific Consulting (SSC) is proposing that the interior of the island be opened up to meet the current housing shortfall and provide a plan to move away from coastal living that will be affected by climate change-induced sea level rises.

While the present lack of housing could be addressed by bringing some 180 properties onto the rental market, some are likely to require significant renovation to bring them up to acceptable standards, especially regarding insulation. 

The Glasgow-based consultants point to the Isle of Skye, where a new 100-property development has begun on Sleat at Kilbeg. The initial phase is creating 17 new homes.

Their summary report of last month's ideation sessions with Barra businesses and entrepreneurs sparked debate over sustainability, localism and the circular economy thanks to an invite from Coimhearsnachd Bharraidh agus Bhatarsaidh Ltd. SSC provided guidance on funding and strategy for expanding income generation.

The conversation also helped compile a high-level analysis of common themes and challenges impacting Barra and Vatersay.

The consultants’ summary report draws together the findings in three pillars of sustainability: economy, environment, and society.

Regarding the economy, Strategic Scientific Consulting highlighted the importance of the tourism industry but noted that the expected 2024 downturn has caused concern that occupancy rates will struggle to reach even 80% capacity.

Predictably, the finger of blame is being pointed at CalMac’s unreliability, especially on the Castlebay-Oban route. 

Comments the consultants: “This is a real issue, but it has also been amplified by negative press attitude and resulted in visitors selecting alternative destinations.”

Post-COVID tourism industry experts believe that the population is less affluent and more inclined to spend their money on a sunshine holiday rather than a staycation in Scotland.

SSC estimates that accommodation revenues alone are a significant part of the Barra economy and exceed £3.4m. They state that if a local tourism tax of £2 per person per night was levied locally and provided to the community company, this could generate over £150,000 for community projects annually. 

Turning to the economy, the summary report remarks that climate-affecting weather patterns and sea levels mean Barra could be hit by more frequent storms 
and severe weather events. 

“This could provide conditions for flooding and for drought. It is predicted that there will be an eight-metre rise in sea level within three generations, and that would wipe out a significant amount of land on Barra and remove much of the housing stock,” the report predicts.

Though not noted for its trees, island residents on Barra and Vatersay are working to increase tree coverage to enable long-term carbon savings, provide windbreaks, and help biodiversity.

Also under consideration is the potential for seagrass regeneration as part of a solution to stabilise the western machair and sand dunes from coastal erosion. 

Tourists have also been banned from camping at the north end of Barra due to damage to the dunes, which has created opportunities for crofters to develop campsites.

The consultants continue that Barra is well-placed to exploit renewable energy through a grid-tied micro-grid and local energy supply. 

Currently, Barra has a single wind turbine that, on average, produces around 53% of the combined annual electrical demand for the domestic and commercial premises on Barra and Vatersay. The community-owned wind turbine sells electricity at c.15p kW-hr, generating approximately £100,000 annual revenue from electricity sales.  

Comments SSC: “An additional turbine or turbine(s) could provide additional power, but excess power can create issues, so this would need to be considered alongside the potential for using the excess power generated through storage or additional activities.”

However, the report outlines a number of battery solutions, some of which have added spin-off benefits.

As well as housing, the report considers solutions to home heating and insulation, restoration of the marine environment, and food security, including proposals for ‘vertical farming’ powered by LED lighting and heated by sand batteries to ensure year-round local access to fresh fruit and vegetables. 

The full summary report can be downloaded.