Arctic Connections: Scotland's Arctic policy framework

A prospectus for cooperation, knowledge-exchange and policy partnerships between Scotland and the Arctic.

Rural Connections

Remoteness is a common feature of the Arctic region and many parts of Scotland, which is more than 90% rural and boasts 96 inhabited islands. Our remote areas share many challenges with the Arctic, from transport to digital connectivity and the provision of medical services. These areas also face problems retaining young people.

The Highlands and Islands is one of the most sparsely populated parts of Europe, with only nine people per square kilometre, similar to some parts of the Arctic. However, the highest percentage of social enterprises in Scotland are found in the same region, illustrating the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of these communities.

The common challenges presented by rurality create opportunities for joint working between Scotland and Arctic states. By taking a community-led and human rights-based approach that recognises the distinct needs of rural areas, we can challenge traditional perceptions and develop innovative solutions to build resilience, empowerment
and representation. Indeed, cooperation between the north of Scotland and Arctic regions has been ongoing for decades, delivering tangible benefits to people and communities on both sides.

The Scottish Rural Parliament gathers rural communities from across Scotland, giving them a stronger voice to initiate change at a local and national level. Drawing inspiration from similar organisations across Europe, including in Finland and Sweden, the Scottish Rural Parliament offers a free platform for communities to connect with policy-makers and share ideas that can contribute to the empowerment of rural areas. The 2018 Rural Parliament saw 400 people of all ages and backgrounds gather in Stranraer, making it the largest participative democratic gathering of rural communities that year.

Rural development and entrepreneurship

A vibrant rural economy is crucial for our national prosperity. Harnessing the full potential of businesses and people in rural areas is fundamental for our vision to become a world-leading entrepreneurial and innovative society. We would benefit from exchanging best practice with Arctic partners in relation to rural entrepreneurship.

Women are key contributors to the rural economy and their empowerment is crucial to unlocking talent that can drive economic growth. Too often, however, their skills are underutilised. Whilst 33% of farm operators in Scotland are women, they are significantly underrepresented on boards and in senior roles. We have launched campaigns and training programmes aimed at empowering women in rural areas by supporting them to develop their talents and take up leadership roles. The Scottish Government's Women in Agriculture Taskforce aims to give women in farming greater access to development opportunities to ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of Scotland's rural economy. Likewise, the Women in Scottish Aquaculture campaign seeks to encourage more women to consider a career in this sector.

Community regeneration

Poverty and inequality are often deep-seated and multi-generational in rural areas, requiring targeted actions focused on their root causes. Over many years, Scotland has developed community-led investment tools that tailor regeneration measures to local needs and aspirations. These programmes create jobs, support social enterprise, build community cohesion and address health inequalities.

For example, the People and Communities Fund has supported the introduction of a new rural transport and handyman service on the Isle of Lewis, with disadvantaged people being supported to attend amenities, education, training and healthcare services. Outcomes have included reduced isolation and improved physical and mental health.

Transparency about who owns and makes decisions about land is also crucial to encouraging community regeneration. At present, only 3% of Scotland's land is in community ownership. In order to increase this figure, we have created a number of community right-to-buy schemes that assist with purchasing land and assets. Thanks to these tools, the amount of land owned by communities has more than doubled from 93,000 hectares in 2003 (when the Land Reform Act came into force) to over 222,000 hectares today. The community buy-out of the Isle of Ulva in 2018 represents the most successful example to date. Bringing the island back into the local community's hands will attract more people to live and work year-round on the island, fighting depopulation and encouraging sustainable development.

Place-making, design and housing

Decision-making and delivery informed by people who live and work locally is key to the social, economic and physical success of places. Scotland has a long tradition of community engagement that allows development plans to be informed by local views. The Place Standard tool supports the regeneration of disadvantaged communities across Scotland through the active participation of local people in the shaping of their places. Because of its emphasis on reducing health inequality, the Place Standard has led to a collaboration between the Scottish Government and the World Health Organization (WHO), with significant uptake of this tool across Europe. More than 13 countries are currently using the Place Standard Tool and the WHO European Healthy Cities Network have recommended it be published as an WHO accredited toolkit for organisations to apply in their development of healthy places.

Case study

The Ulva Ferry community on the Isle of Mull suffered from long-term population decline and geographical isolation, with few affordable housing options for local people, especially young families. As a result, the local school was threatened with closure. Thanks to a community-led project that involved local residents in the decision-making, from choosing the architect to approving the final design, Ulva Ferry saw the construction of new affordable and net-zero housing. An innovative system makes these homes highly energy efficient, tackling fuel poverty. New young families have moved to Ulva Ferry, increasing community resilience and allowing local people to continue to live, work and go to school in the area.

The Prospect North project promoted by Glasgow-based Lateral North architects draws on Scotland's relationship to the North to show how architecture, design and technology can transform community engagement. By means of innovative mapping strategies and videos, Prospect North explores the relationship between culture, places, industries and economies to show how rural communities from Shetland to the Isle of Bute are re-energising through grassroots actions and local endeavours.

In partnership with Arctic countries, we can identify new innovative approaches to sustainable design. We have already built strong connections with Denmark, whose use of digital planning tools can strengthen our understanding of ways in which place-making can raise the standard of affordable housing and contribute to improving local wellbeing.

The context for the provision of new housing is changing considerably due to issues such as climate change, demographic trends, ways of living and shifting expectations. The last 20 years have seen a renaissance in rural housing design that responds with sensitivity to the climate, topography and building traditions of Scotland and which also addresses issues of affordability. Building on this work and existing links, there is potential to collaborate with Arctic partners to develop new models of living and innovative design responses to the global and national challenges we face.

Young and rural: A Scottish-Arctic dialogue

Both the Arctic region and Scottish rural areas face substantial challenges retaining young people, with significant consequences for the local economy, culture and society. Evidence[13] suggests that factors influencing youth emigration include education and employment opportunities as well as housing and public transport availability. When it comes to building resilient and prosperous rural areas, listening to how young people see their future and what they need to drive the empowerment of their communities is essential.

Young people in the Highlands and Islands region show a strong sense of belonging and a desire to work in their communities. However, most people leaving their rural communities are between the ages of 15 and 19,[14] a trend that mirrors changes in population observed in the Arctic region.[15] The provision of improved facilities, affordable housing and employment opportunities must go hand in hand with a dialogue that places new generations at the core of planning and delivery considerations. Scotland can share and build on the legacy of the 2018 Year of Young People, which gave young people a stronger voice in policy-making, valuing their contribution to communities and creating new platforms for them to shine locally, nationally and globally.

The Highland Youth Parliament (HYP) played a key role in the delivery of the Themed Year. HYP enables young people in the Highlands to discuss their rights in relation to a wide variety of issues, from transport and connectivity to LGBTI rights and education. The participation of both HYP and Troms County Youth Council representatives at Scotland's Arctic Day in March 2019 created a new opportunity for transnational dialogue between young people who are experiencing similar challenges. There is potential for exploring opportunities for collaborations with other youth organisations in the Arctic, for instance the Barents Regional Youth Council.

Health and wellbeing in rural communities

Rural communities face distinct challenges in delivering primary care services, particularly in recruiting and retaining clinicians. The Scottish Government has established a Remote and Rural General Practice Working Group to provide recommendations on ways to ensure that the views of rural clinicians and communities are better recognised in primary care policy development. The Group supports a range of initiatives including Rediscover the Joy in General Practice, a programme to attract doctors to work in rural areas by tailoring posts to suit the candidate and providing opportunities for professional development. The Group is considering opportunities to develop a national centre for excellence in rural health and social care that will build networks and share knowledge with and from other countries.

Scotland and Arctic partners can work together to address issues such as challenging geography, professional isolationism and limited workforce, and ensure that person centred and sustainable care for patients is provided across rural communities.

Technology-enabled care is a key component of ensuring high quality healthcare services are available to as many people as possible regardless of rurality. Digital solutions can help Scotland and the Arctic region ensure that all communities are provided with adequate health and social care services irrespective of where they live.

Scotland has already developed considerable expertise in this area, giving people more freedom over how they manage their care and reducing unnecessary travel to appointments. There are currently estimated to be around 170,000 telecare users across Scotland. Attend Anywhere video consultations allow for a secure clinician-to-patient environment that can be accessed anywhere by a member of the public through a web browser or app on their laptop, tablet or smart phone.

To date, over 7,000 Video Consultations have taken place in Scotland. Based on 954 answers to the Attend Anywhere Progress Report published in July 2019, video consultations have resulted in travel savings as follows: 94 bus/train journeys, 49 taxi rides, 562 car journeys, 56 flights, 71 ferry crossings and 34 patient transports (figures account for one way only). Service users indicated that on average they saved a 93-mile trip.

Although Scotland has strong know-how in the area of digital health, we remain committed to learning from others. Finland, for instance, has been a pioneer in telehealth and all Finns have online access to their health records and their e-prescription history.

In order to further cooperation and knowledge exchange on digital solutions to healthcare, Scottish institutions have already signed a number of Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with Arctic countries. In 2017, the University of Strathclyde signed an MoU with Odense University Hospital and in 2018 the University of Strathclyde and the Digital Health & Care Institute signed an MoU with the University of Adger and Norway's Centre for E-Health research.

A Connected Scotland,[16] our national strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness, recognises the unique challenges faced by rural communities. Mental health is a concern for both Scotland and the Arctic region. Tragically, suicide rates in the Arctic are now among the highest in the world,[17] and young people are particularly at risk. There is increasing recognition of the urgent need for suicide prevention strategies and early intervention approaches.

Scotland's Suicide Prevention Action Plan[18] outlines how we plan to make suicide preventable and ensure support is available to anyone contemplating suicide as well as to those who have lost a loved one. It has a target to reduce the suicide rate by 20% by 2022. As part of our Mental Health Strategy, we have established a National Rural Mental Health Forum that seeks to bring positive change through a network of rural organisations.

Scotland and Arctic countries can work together to tackle both the visible and invisible barriers to accessing and seeking mental health support, developing solutions that allow people to get the right help at the right time, free from discrimination and stigma.


High quality digital connectivity is essential for delivering inclusive economic growth and innovation, particularly in rural, remote and island areas. The accessibility and quality of digital infrastructure is particularly crucial to support flourishing businesses, public services and the retention of young people in our communities.

We are working with industry and regulators to improve mobile coverage across Scotland, extending access to 4G services while positioning Scotland as a 5G leader. The Reaching 100% (R100) programme will provide superfast broadband access to every home and business in Scotland. Since 2014, access to this technology has increased from 61% to 92%, with major improvements in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.[19]

The challenges of broadband deployment in the Arctic are akin to those encountered by Scottish remote communities.[20] Like Scotland, Arctic states have established broadband speed and coverage goals to increase interconnectivity in sparsely populated areas. Often working together, as in the case of the Arctic Mobile Communications Architectures programme, Arctic countries are rolling out extensive connectivity projects, exploring a variety of infrastructural and financing models. Scotland could learn from these experiences and exchange best practices with Arctic stakeholders, especially in relation to public-private partnerships.

Fuel poverty

With the introduction of the Fuel Poverty Act, we have taken a world-leading approach to one of the biggest issues facing rural communities. The Act set an ambitious target that by 2040, as far as reasonably possible, no household in Scotland is in fuel poverty and, in any event, no more than 5% of households suffer from this problem. By the end of 2021, we will have allocated over £1 billion since 2009 through energy efficiency programmes to make homes warmer and cheaper to heat.

Rural and island communities face distinct challenges, such as differences in weather and housing stock, as well as higher installation and labour costs. Since 2013/14, our rural areas have received almost £64 million in investment through the Scottish Government's Home Energy Efficiency Programmes. Through Warmer Homes Scotland, our national fuel poverty scheme, we have made available additional measures to rural and island communities not served by the gas grid. These include ground source heat pumps, micro wind, micro hydro and micro combined heat and power systems.

Despite their colder climates, Arctic countries such as Sweden and Denmark experience less fuel poverty,[21] opening up opportunities for mutual learning on areas such as energy efficiency and off-grid power solutions.

An island-proofed future

In 2011, a total of 103,700 people lived on our 96 inhabited islands, representing 2% of Scotland's total population.

The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 is one of the few pieces of legislation around the world to focus entirely on islands and island communities. It requires policies, strategies and services to be "island-proofed" where their implementation is considered likely to have a different effect on an island community compared to mainland Scotland. The Act also required the Scottish Government to develop a National Islands Plan by means of an islands-wide consultation.

The National Islands Plan sets a direction of travel for the Scottish Government and provides a framework for action in order to meaningfully improve outcomes for island communities. This open and participative consultation approach has afforded an opportunity to better understand the realities of island communities across the entire breadth of Scotland and to put in place policies and strategies that respond directly to their needs.

This inclusive exercise has produced much evidence and know-how that we could share with our Arctic partners, some of which - especially Norway and Canada - feature a large number of islands in their northernmost territories. Scottish islands would also benefit from greater exchange of knowledge and practices with the Faroe Islands and Åland Islands, with a view to identifying new avenues for islands communities to thrive and increase their resilience.

Going forward, we will:

  • Engage with counterparts in Arctic countries to identify best practice in relation to promoting community regeneration in rural areas and islands, with a particular focus on female empowerment and participative place-making.
  • Explore - with active participation by young people - opportunities to learn lessons around youth retention in remote areas, including by sharing the experience Scotland has developed thanks to the 2018 Year of Young People.
  • Work with civic Scotland to promote new young people exchanges between Scotland and the Arctic.
  • Foster knowledge exchanges on the delivery of connectivity as well as public services such as healthcare, including mental health, and education in rural areas.
  • Engage with any Arctic partners who want to work with Scotland to share the lessons we have learnt from the development of our National Islands Plan.



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