Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Perception of Poverty

This croft is the shape of a doughnut - it is about 10 hectares of land, but at its centre is a half hectare that has been decrofted. This is where the cottage sits which used to be the crofthouse, where the previous crofter used to live. But when he died and the croft tenancy was transfered, the house and its site was taken out of the crofting legal system and sold off into the free market, to be traded as a commodity. The current owners live in London, not content to own just one home and rich enough to indulge their fancy. They visit for a couple of weeks a year. Most of the time the house stands empty. I walk past it several times a day, and I have to confess when the wind is force 7 or more and the rain is pelting down, like it is today, I wish that the buildling and land could be reunited, and I could look out over the croft from the house that was built for just that purpose.

Well, blow me down, if the owners haven't decided that they've had enough of it and have put it up for sale. Fantastic, I hear you shout. Slow down. It's a holiday home, one of many in these parts that are bought and sold by people who live, and earn, in the London economy. They are asking for offers over £180,000. There is no way I, or anyone else living on Highlands wage scales, could afford it. I've got some savings, and if I get my parents to advance me my inheritance, I could maybe pull together £60,000. Let's assume the sellers were to accept £180,000 (unlikely as houses here, which are increasing in value at about 20% per year, always go for way over the asking price). I'd need to raise a loan of £120,000. On my earnings - an average of about £15,000 a year - I could barely raise a residential mortgage of half that. To service a buy-to-let mortgage (in which case I couldn't live in it, so what's the point?), would cost about £1000 per month, and it isn't worth that in rental. The only business model that makes sense would be to run it as a commercial holiday rental property. With great marketing it might possibly be feasible to make enough income to cover the loan payments - £14,000 a year. That's a lot of holiday lets, though I could at least stay in it the weeks that it wasn't rented out. But with my low turnover and no track record, no bank will even look at lending to me on that basis .

I don't feel poor, normally. Quite the opposite. I have a daily wealth of sights, sounds and smells. I am priviledged to live in such a wild, beautiful place. I am healthy, fit and enriched by my environment. I am self-sufficient in chanterelles, mint sauce and onions. I make willow baskets from withies I grow myself. I drink water off the hill and get power from the wind and sun. But after a day being interrogated by a stream of financial advisors and mortgage consultants and being repeatedly rejected as having too low an income to be of interest, I begin to guess what it might feel like to be poor. I remember a friend in Nepal, Krishna, asking 'how much your boots cost?' I'd tell him, he'd shake his head. 'How much your bag?' Not much less. He'd shake his head again. 'How much the computer cost?' My laptop, that little slip of a machine, worth more than his three buffalo. More than a whole year's living. Now, walking past the house in the middle of the croft, I too shake my head. It costs more than I can hope to earn. It's the same all over the Highlands and Islands -wee cottages built by the previous generation of crofters, priced out of the reach of the current generation of caravan and council house dwellers.

Fortunately the rowan jelly set perfectly.

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