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.


Background to the report

Scotland's remote and rural areas face significant demographic challenges. A legacy of selective out-migration over the last decades of the twentieth century means that most remote and rural areas are experiencing negative natural change (more deaths than births), and their population is declining as well as ageing. At the same time, low levels of net migration from other areas of Scotland, the UK and overseas (especially compared to Scotland's cities), means that population decline is not being offset by in-migration. Population ageing and decline can have a range of negative effects for local communities, reducing their capacity to sustain local services and businesses.

These challenges were highlighted in the first Expert Advisory Group (EAG) report, which argued that in-migration of working-age migrants was the only viable option for averting a downward demographic spiral.[1] The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) acknowledged the issues in a May 2019 report, noting that the 'only way to address this question in the UK context would be to pilot a scheme that facilitated migration to these areas, then monitor what happens over several years and evaluate the outcomes'.[2]

In order to develop an evidence base for designing and piloting a remote and rural migration scheme (RRMS), the Scottish Government commissioned the EAG to prepare a report on how such a scheme to attract international migration to these areas might operate, and its potential impacts on remote and rural communities. The commission reflects the priority which the Scottish Government places on addressing depopulation in rural and island areas, as reflected in the National Planning Framework.[3]

Chapter 1 of the report provides some background analysis on the demographic challenges in remote and rural areas, building on earlier EAG analysis. Chapter 2 analyses the economic and social impacts of population ageing and decline for local communities. The chapter discusses different approaches to identifying which remote and rural areas might participate in the scheme.

The report goes on to consider different options for a RRMS (Chapter 3), including the criteria for recruitment of entrants; and their rights and conditions of stay. The chapter also considers how such a scheme might be piloted and evaluated. Finally, we consider how a RRMS would best be implemented, including exploring issues around settlement and retention and longer-term integration (Chapter 4).


It is important to note at the outset how we use the term 'remote and rural' through this report. There is no standard definition of this term, and its meaning will vary depending on which aspect of 'remoteness' is emphasised, and which data and level of analysis are employed.

We define and clarify various aspects of these definitions in Chapter 1, which starts with an analysis of small area data, to gain a granular picture of demographic change across smaller geographical units. However, we go on to adopt a more generalised framework allowing us to draw on a wider range of data, and to align the analysis with more familiar geographical classifications. To this end, we draw on the Scottish Government's own Urban-Rural classification (2016).[4] The 8-fold version, distinguishing 'very remote' rural areas and small towns, contains most of the areas with the most rapid demographic decline. An even 'tighter boundary' is provided by the James Hutton Institute's 'Sparsely Populated Area' (SPA) definition.[5]

The analysis of population change in Chapter 1 uses these definitions. Parts of the socio-economic analysis of Chapter 2 use the 6-fold version of the Urban-Rural classification, in which the 'very remote' rural areas and small towns form part of the 'remote' category. Other parts of the analysis in Chapters 1 and 2 are based upon data for Council Areas. In this case, the Rural & Environment Science & Analytical Service (RESAS) Urban-Rural classification[6] is used. Some analysis in Chapter 2 is based upon data from Rural Scotland Key Facts, and it is important to be aware that in this case the small towns are not included in the 'remote rural' category. Based on the analysis of Chapters 1 and 2, the report also introduces the term 'designated areas' to refer to those areas that might be included in a RRMS.

A second key concept in the report is the notion of 'strategic mitigation'. We use this term to capture the insight that a scheme to attract international migration to remote and rural areas should not aim to achieve one-to-one 'replacement migration'. Rather, it should focus in a more targeted way in attracting migrants with the skills and profile that would best address the social and economic challenges created by population decline.

Finally, we note that the report focuses on international migration, rather than internal migration within Scotland or from the rest of the UK (covered in the EAG's fourth report).[7] This reflects the specific recommendation to design a pilot scheme for international migration to remote and rural areas, and Chapter 3 on policy options is focused solely on a discussion of schemes to attract migrants from overseas. However, we note that much of the analysis in Chapters 1 and 2, and the recommendations in Chapter 4, are relevant to promoting and supporting migration from within Scotland and the UK.



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