Designing a pilot remote and rural migration scheme: analysis and policy options

This report sets out analysis and policy options to inform a potential pilot scheme for migration to remote and rural areas of Scotland.

Executive Summary

This report sets out analysis and policy options to inform a potential pilot scheme for migration to remote and rural areas of Scotland. It builds on earlier Expert Advisory Group reports setting out the particular demographic challenges faced by remote and rural areas, and the potential for international migration to help address them. These considerations underpinned recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee in 2019 to establish a pilot scheme for attracting migration to remote and rural areas, endorsed by the then Home Secretary.

In designing such a scheme, it is important to clarify which types of areas would be covered. Most definitions of 'remote and rural' areas are based on measures of population density and drive-time from more populous settlements; however, such classifications can be based on different geographical units, and this becomes important when considering which areas might be included in such a scheme. In the report, we suggest two main ways of identifying which remote and rural areas of Scotland might be 'designated areas' for a remote and rural migration scheme, based on population data, and also taking into account travel to work areas.

A second key point is about the goal of such a scheme. A migration scheme for remote and rural areas should not aim to achieve 'replacement migration' to offset population decline. Rather, it should be targeted to attract migrants with the skills and profile that would best address socio-economic challenges created by population decline - an approach we term 'strategic mitigation'.

The Challenges for Remote and Rural Areas

Scotland's remote and rural areas have experienced population ageing and decline over a number of years, and by 2019, the share of population of working age in remote and rural areas was 6-7 percentage points below the Scottish average. This ageing process reduces the number of births and increases the number of deaths, with the consequence that the only way for an ageing population to grow is through expanding in-migration. However, population decline in remote and rural areas has not been offset by in-migration. Positive net migration to remote rural areas has remained at very low levels, and in 2017-18 only around 7% of in-migration was from overseas.

Population decline has a range of negative social and economic impacts on local communities. It restricts the local labour supply, and leads to an increase in its average age. Labour markets in sparsely populated areas are particularly vulnerable, as small increases or decreases in labour supply can have large effects on the viability of the local economy. There is no readily available pool of labour to fill vacancies. Population decline can also adversely affect public service provision, through creating labour shortages in key services. Moreover, government funding formulae for public services are largely population driven, implying that public services will receive less resource as people move away, which can then further accelerate economic and population decline.

As employers struggle to recruit and local economies become less buoyant, businesses may leave the area taking with them access to more attractive or better-paid jobs. As remaining residents age, commercial and leisure facilities and social services for younger people and families often decline making it less attractive for those age groups to stay, whether they are locally born or newer arrivals. In these ways a spiral effect is created.

It is important to understand these dynamics, to inform the design of a potential immigration scheme. Clearly, the negative socio-economic impacts of population decline create a strong rationale for seeking to mitigate such decline through facilitating in-migration. At the same time, in order for such in-migration to be viable and lead to longer-term settlement, it is important to make sure there are sustainable employment opportunities and an attractive environment for migrants in the local area.

Options for a Remote and Rural Migration Scheme (RRMS)

Based on this analysis, we suggest that a RRMS should aim to attract migrants with the skills and profile that can best contribute to strategic mitigation in remote and rural areas. This implies selecting migrants with relevant skills and occupations to meet labour market needs; and supporting them to settle and integrate in such areas with their families. Building on these considerations, we set out three main proposals for a RRMS.

1. Expanding Skilled Worker Route

The first scheme would involve relaxing conditions for the Skilled Worker route (previously known as Tier 2), specifically for employers in designated areas. We suggest the most viable option for this approach would be through a bespoke Shortage Occupation List for remote and rural areas. The list would include occupations of strategic importance to remote and rural areas, and accommodate a wider range of skills and salaries than currently permitted under this route. Sponsored employers could recruit migrants to jobs located in a designated area, and matching the list of shortage occupations.

In order to maximise the benefits of this scheme for remote and rural areas, the scheme would need to either encourage, or require, entrants and their families to also reside in the designated area. This would be more feasible if the designated area took the form of an existing travel to work area.

The advantage of the modified Skilled Worker approach is that it would involve only modest adjustments to current UK immigration rules. It would allow employers in remote areas to recruit migrants across a wider spectrum of skills, salaries and occupations. It also builds in a route to permanent settlement, although migrants would need to have continuous employment in an eligible occupation and a designated area for 5 years.

2. Scottish Visa

The second scheme would build on the Scottish Government proposal for a Scottish Visa, but specifically targeted at designated areas. Rather than relying on employers to identify entrants, this scheme would involve a points-based system, which prioritised features such as skills and occupational experience, age, family/dependents, language skills, ties to the region. Scottish Government would set a quota for the number to be admitted, potentially by local authority.

Such a scheme would need to offer a generous package of rights from the outset, including recourse to public funds. This would be especially important for migrants moving to remote and rural areas, given the existence of 'shallow' labour markets in such areas. We propose that the requirement to be based in a designated area would apply for the first 4 years, at which point migrants would be eligible for permanent residency and full mobility rights within the UK.

The disadvantage of this scheme is that it would not include a guarantee of viable employment, or a successful business start-up, in the place of destination. This risk could be partially mitigated by including criteria relating to particular occupations/skills that are in demand within the points-based system.

3. Remote and Rural Partnership Scheme

The third option, modelled on the Canadian Atlantic Pilot scheme, would be a job-based scheme, embedded in a broader partnership between local authorities, employers, public services and the voluntary sector. Under this scheme, the Scottish Government would work with local authorities and employers in designated areas to develop a 'strategic mitigation' plan, including identifying occupations that were seen as crucial for mitigating population decline. However, unlike for the Shortage Occupation List option, they could be areas displaying strong potential for future growth/regeneration, rather than being limited to those that could demonstrate (existing) acute shortages. Employers with job vacancies within the occupations identified in the strategic mitigation plan could enrol in the scheme. They would agree to take an active role in supporting employees, in turn receiving assistance in recruiting workers from overseas, and exemption from paying fees or charges.

Enrolled employers would nominate employees to enter through the scheme, with entrants approved by the Home Office. Those entering under the scheme would signal their intention to stay in a designated area of Scotland (for at least 4 years). They would have a job offer, and be offered an integration package including help in finding accommodation, schooling, access to health and other public services, and language classes for the family. As with the other options, it would be most beneficial for local areas if entrants would both work and reside in the designated area. If designated areas are defined as co-extensive with travel to work areas, this is likely to be achievable in the majority of cases.

Evaluating a Pilot Scheme

For each of these three options, a pilot scheme would involve trialling the scheme for a small number of migrants (for example, 200). The long-term success of the scheme would be assessed based on its potential to contribute to strategic mitigation in remote and rural areas facing depopulation. As such an effect may take many years to kick in, and it would be more appropriate to evaluate the performance of the scheme in relation to more specific medium-term goals, notably:

  • Attracting migrants with the appropriate profile to contribute to the economic and social well-being of the local community in designated areas.
  • Supporting the integration and long-term settlement of migrants and their families in these designated areas.

We set out a range of indicators and methods that could be used to monitor achievement of these goals, to evaluating the success of a pilot scheme.

Promoting Integration and Settlement

All three of the schemes would be enhanced by complementary initiatives to support integration and settlement in remote and rural areas. This approach was built into our third 'partnership' scheme; but the other two schemes would also benefit from measures to mobilise stakeholders and the wider community to support migrants and their families.

Communities in remote and rural areas may have limited experience of receiving international migrants, and offer more limited public services and amenities than urban areas. In such settings, particular attention needs to be paid to assisting newcomers to make positive social contacts and ensuring that they have access to and knowledge of their rights and entitlements. It will therefore be important that the RRMS be developed alongside a clearly defined integration strategy. The Scottish Government would need to work with local authorities and other stakeholders to develop an integration framework that can be adapted to the capacities and needs of the designated areas and the groups of migrants who arrive to them; and which clearly sets out the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders, and the resources available to them.



Back to top