The price of poor decisions: Generations lost forever

Paul Connolly, Norran's English editor, who lives in the Skellefteå countryside, is amazed that in the middle of an acute housing shortage, the municipality hasn't followed the lead of Boden and Luleå and conducted an inventory of abandoned rural houses. "They're homes that many newcomers yearn for, that are just sitting there, rotting."

Some empty houses are in beautful settings.

Some empty houses are in beautful settings.

Foto: Jonathan Takalo

Engelska2023-10-03 13:40

In a recent interview by a southern Sweden media outlet, I was asked why it was proving so hard to recruit people to Norrland to work on the green transition. I replied that the problem wasn’t so much recruitment; it was building housing fast enough to accommodate all the newcomers. 

Northvolt has 400 people who urgently need long-term homes. The Skellefteå newcomers Facebook group is peppered daily by new people looking for accommodation. With banks refusing to finance building projects, new construction has ground to a halt. Only the municipality’s housing company, Skebo, is really in full flow, but there’s only so much they can do.

The landlords’ trade association, MittNord, is trying to take up some of the slack. They’ve suggested to the municipality that they ease building regulations, so that MittNord’s members can more quickly extend existing properties. But that’s really only a sticking plaster solution. 

Skellefteå municipality, like Northvolt, is encouraging the government to step in, to encourage banks to finance projects again so that builders can start building again.

But even if they do start building again, will they be building the right sort of housing? So far, there has been an over-reliance on apartment blocks built in cities and towns.

The type of newcomers we really need to attract for a long-term population boost is families. And most families I know who have moved here haven’t wanted to live in a cramped apartment in town. 

Many families yearn for countryside living.

The vast majority of them dream of rural living, of living in a house with a little land, the kind of dwelling they wouldn’t have been able to afford in their home country. 

If they can’t find that life, or feel they’ve been deceived, or, worse, that they’re not wanted, they will leave the region. 

And they’ll take their spouses and families with them, all those countless future generations, all those potential geologists, engineers and school teachers, lost forever.

That is not a risk worth taking. So, how can we avoid losing these people? Well, the obvious solution is to build more new houses in the countryside. But, given planning issues, that’s not so easy in villages or rural areas. Where I live, for instance, is a conservation area. Building a new house there would not be possible. 

But in the surrounding areas, there are at least five uninhabited houses. On my drive to the Norran office each day, I pass at least 15 empty houses, most of which are in need of renovation, but all of which would potentially make lovely, welcoming homes for newcomer families. 

Abandoned houses in Västerbotten are rarely this grand, but there are some big old houses being left to rot by their owners.

I don't know for sure how many deserted rural houses there are in the municipality, but a rough estimate would be at least 750. They're homes that many people yearn for, that are just sitting there, rotting. If the average family has four people, and even if only a quarter of those houses can be made habitable, that's housing for 750 people. 

Our fellow green transition municipalities, Boden and Luleå, have already collaborated to undertake an inventory of empty rural houses. Their initial inventory uncovered 550 abandoned countryside houses. They’re currently putting owners and interested newcomers in touch with each other.

This is a win-win situation. Newcomers get to live the rural life of their dreams and village life is invigorated by new families living in previous derelict homes. Many depleted northern villages will have life breathed into them once more.

It's a win-win situation. Newcomers get to live the rural life of their dreams and village life is invigorated by new families living in previous derelict homes.

So, why hasn’t Skellefteå made an inventory of abandoned rural houses? Wouldn’t this be a small, but important, measure to ease the housing crisis?

The municipality has, in fact, looked into the possibility of making an inventory. Back in 2016, at the height of the refugee crisis, there were calls for such an accounting of abandoned houses. That proposition seems to have been finally denied in 2021

The reason? That Northvolt's new battery factory would make renting out houses easy, so what was the point of an inventory?

As reasons go, that's on a different level of wrong-headed. "We're going to have a huge influx of people, and we probably won't have enough homes, so let's not investigate every source of possible housing and just leave it all to the market." 

The free market doesn't have all the answers, as everyone with a shred of intelligence knows by now. Well, almost everyone.

We need an inventory of deserted rural homes, and we need it ASAP.

Some of the deserted houses would make perfect family homes. With a little bit of work!
Some of the deserted houses would make perfect family homes. With a little bit of work!