Jennifer and Andrew Earle’s new home arrived on the ferry to Arran almost a fortnight ago, a static caravan just about large enough for the couple and their four daughters, the youngest six months old.
It was towed by tractor to Andrew’s parents’ house near the southern tip of Arran, where Andrew and his father will pack its walls and roof with extra insulation against the island’s bitter winters, and build a playroom extension for the four girls.
It will be home for several years, and the family will cook and wash in Andrew’s parent’s house while they save enough to build their own house next door.
“We need to put down roots and make our own place,” said Jennifer. She is a trainee kilt maker and Andrew works in a social club. They see this as a necessary investment. And the Earles are now hardened to it. “We’ve been in a caravan over winter for one year and that wasn’t the worst place we have lived in,” she said.
Those places included a freezing house with just one working storage heater; a substandard prefab and a cottage where the damp, mould and coal fire led to one daughter suffering repeated chest infections. Their doctor’s remedy was simple: move.
“In one house we were in, we’d literally to pick: do we eat dinner today or do we put money in the heating today,” Jennifer said. “If we stay where we are now, we will never own our own house. We will forever rent.”
Yet Arran is a wealthy island, with nearly full employment and a thriving tourism industry driven by British holidaymakers drawn to the dramatic mountain landscape provided by Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak, fine beaches and picture postcard views over to the Mull of Kintyre.
The Earles’ experience is shared by hundreds of other islanders. Arran’s success masks a hidden crisis of homelessness and insecurity, not for the unemployed but the island’s workforce: its mechanics, hotel staff, shop workers and even teachers are unable to find or afford their own homes.
The crisis is driven by landlords cashing in on Arran’s lucrative market for summer holiday lettings, a chronic shortage of affordable homes and dramatic inflation in house prices, driven by hundreds of wealthy professionals for whom Arran is the perfect place to retire.
Analysis by the Arran Economic Group, a lobbying organisation set up by islanders, has found the ratio between house prices and earnings is amongst the worst in the UK, with house prices eight to 10 times higher than Arran’s average wages.
Data given to the Guardian by North Ayrshire council, Arran’s local authority, shows nearly a quarter of Arran’s 3,109 homes are either second homes, holiday homes or lying empty – a figure that puts Arran second only to St Ives in Cornwall, where the council has now banned the building of new holiday homes.
Many islanders rent homes privately, finding them by word of mouth, and have little security. Robbie Bain, 24, and his partner, Bethany Stone, 23, have to leave their rented house in Lamlash in May because the owner is letting it out to holidaymakers over the summer, when she stands to make four times as much in rent.
Officially, a fifth of Lamlash’s 781 homes are registered as second homes or holiday homes; in reality, many more became so in summer. Their owners move out or, like Bain and Stone, ask their tenants to leave. The couple began looking for a new place in February but have had no success. “[The owner] did actually say she would let us come back in in October, but that doesn’t help us in the meantime,” said Stone.
Both have full-time jobs: Stone works at a pharmacy and Bain as lifeguard and fitness instructor at a resort on the island. “That’s the trouble with the island: money will talk. People rent their houses [for the summer] and make a fortune,” said Bain. Their story is common on Arran.
In Blackwaterfoot, a seaside village overlooking the Mull of Kintyre that boasts one of Arran’s seven golf courses, nearly 40% of its 171 homes are holiday homes. Ali Brown, 26, a mechanic and volunteer firefighter, and his girlfriend, Sarah Gillingham, 20, who works in the Lochranza hotel in the village, have found it impossible to get a home to rent or buy.
“Nothing is affordable,” said Gillingham. They have to live with their parents. “It’s not just me; there are probably another 15 people in this village same age as me, looking for somewhere to live,” said Brown.
The same challenges affect the island’s older workers. Wyn Roberts, a restaurant supervisor at the same resort where Bain works, the Auchrannie Resort, is now 66 but unable to retire because he would lose the subsidised staff accommodation which comes with his job. Retirement would leave him homeless.
Roberts has worked there for 15 years but says the future worries him: as a single man, the shortage of council housing on Arran greatly reduces his options.
“I plan to work hopefully as long as I can, which most people would think it’s 70. I don’t have a choice. Where the hell do I go? Build a cabin in the woods somewhere?”