Place-based policy approaches to population challenges: Lessons for Scotland

This report by the independent Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population analyses a range of place-based policy approaches to population challenges (including zonal approaches), and sets out lessons for Scotland.

Executive summary

This report examines the concept of zonal policymaking and its relationship to broader place-based approaches to policy. It explores how such policy interventions could be applied in response to Scotland’s rural and island population concerns and sets out some potential challenges as well as what might be expected as outcomes. The background to the report has been the emergence of ‘repopulation zones’ as a policy concept and an initiative of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (COHI), and the subsequent Scottish Government commitment to investigate their effectiveness in addressing population challenges. The report strives to enrich and structure the evidence base for ongoing policy dialogue between Scottish Government and other actors at regional, Council, and community levels.

The report does not recommend specific policy interventions nor advise on the choice of potential ‘zones’. Instead, it lays out underlying questions and considerations regarding intervention logic and proposes two contrasting approaches to spatial targeting. It offers insights and lessons from historical zonal policies regarding economic development, and from international examples of place-based policy responses to depopulation.

Policy goals and intervention logics

In considering the policy goals which might drive different ‘repopulation’ approaches it is important to begin from the economic and social processes which both underlie and result from population decline – sometimes referred to as ‘complex shrinking’. These are often quite unique to specific places and require carefully tailored interventions. The policy goals and intervention logics behind any proposed intervention should be explicitly discussed and should be realistic, consistent, and achievable.

There are two broad options in designing repopulation policy goals: mitigation (changing the trend) and adaptation (living with or neutralising the effects of decline). In this report we focus primarily on mitigation. However, even if mitigation is the objective, there is scope to vary the goal of intervention. Recent Scottish Government positions have nuanced objectives away from the pursuit of growth everywhere towards a focus on ‘sustainable balance’. In the report we return to the concept of ‘strategic mitigation’, originally presented in our 2021 report on options for a rural visa pilot scheme. The goal of strategic mitigation in population policies is to ensure continued economic and social viability for communities. Success is measured primarily in terms of community well-being rather than demographic or economic growth.

Intervention logics connect policy actions to understandings of the problem addressed. These should be explicit and thought through step-by-step. In practice there is a risk that they are implicit or based on assumptions rather than evidence. Evidence-based policy should keep in mind the chain of links between the local processes which have resulted in population decline, the ultimate goals of zonal policies, and the ‘intermediate outcomes’ which play a key role in evaluating progress.

Several key questions, more broadly elaborated in the report, need to be considered when designing a place-based approach to rural population decline:

  • Should increasing population numbers or re-balancing age-structures within an area be considered a priority in setting policy goals?
  • Should repopulation policy address narrow repopulation goals, or wider and more complex social, economic and community processes underlying and resulting from population change?
  • What are the implications of the overarching objectives of a ‘repopulation’ initiative for how it is targeted – how boundaries are drawn?
  • How can interventions be tailored as ‘smart’ responses to the specific local drivers of decline, and to place-specific opportunities for revitalisation?
  • When considering the ‘activity space’ required by the population nurtured by a repopulation zone how can a forward-looking perspective be woven in, taking account of changing working practices, commuting styles, technological innovations, and connections etc.?
  • How can spatially targeted repopulation policies, and the configuration of zones, better take account of barriers to the development of sustainable communities in remote rural areas? For example, the need for affordable housing, good quality employment, accessible services, and improved infrastructure (for both information technology and transport).
  • Since the consequences of ‘complex shrinking’ impinge on a broad range of policy areas, how can synergies between zonal population interventions and a broader policy landscape be maximised?
  • How can repopulation zone policies avoid unintended effects commonly associated with spatially targeted interventions, e.g., ‘displacement’ of population from adjacent areas?

Understanding patterns of population change

The report reviews and updates key findings on rural depopulation from previous EAG analysis. It then explores an alternative ‘narrative’ perspective which allows for greater recognition of the importance of unique geographical contexts and past development pathways.

Our updated analysis of Small Area Population Estimate (SAPE) data, filtered through the Scottish Government’s eight-fold Urban-Rural classification, is broadly in line with our previous findings. Remote rural areas on average have seen continued decline and ageing of population, whilst in accessible rural areas, populations have increased, and have a more balanced age structure. Within remote rural areas, populations drift towards (but often not into) small towns and villages.

The data-zones which are, on average, most severely affected by negative population trends are in ‘sparsely populated areas’ (SPA), very remote rural areas, and very remote small towns. Least affected are accessible rural areas. Thus, the pockets of depopulation which are the legitimate subject of targeted [rural] policy tend to be in the more remote and sparsely populated parts of Scotland. Very remote small towns stand out as facing especially urgent challenges.

And yet, generalisations mask a rich tapestry of specific local experiences and narratives. As noted above policy responses need to address wider social and economic processes of decline (complex shrinking), which occur within more extensive ‘activity spaces’ and beyond tightly defined zones. Policies developed to mitigate population decline in particular places need to take account of their wider geographical contexts and unique historical development paths.

The report provides detailed insight into the dynamic and evolving nature of population numbers and settlement patterns within Scotland since the 1960s. We demonstrate that declining population is not confined to rural areas and that populations in many rural local authorities have grown in recent decades. We explore nuanced patterns of population change within local authority areas and find that from the 1990s the former general pattern of mainland rural decline became much more localised.

We also examine the situation on Scotland’s many islands and find that the number of islands which experienced a significant decline in population between 2001-2011 was much fewer than had been the case in most previous decades, with some experiencing significant recovery. Nonetheless a significant number of island populations have continued their long-term decline. These historically shifting patterns of change require us to think about places as existing in a dynamic relationship with wider geographic contexts, as well as with social, cultural, and economic developments.

Whilst natural change (fewer births than deaths) remains the dominant driver of population decline and ageing in rural Scotland, movements of people between locations also play a significant part. In policy terms, migration is also a factor more open to influence from interventions by local or national governments. Many of the historical fluctuations noted above are driven by shifting patterns of local in- and out-migration. Contrary to an intervention logic based around economic growth, however, and perhaps especially in the contemporary digital and global era, movements are not only driven by new employment opportunities physically located within a particular community. We consider other socio-economic, demographic and cultural developments which may underpin new movements of people to rural Scotland. These include retirement and ‘life style’ migration as well as contemporary shifts in work patterns including increased ‘working from home’ and medium-to-long-distance commuting.

Meanwhile, economic, infrastructural, and social developments elsewhere can have a significant impact on localities. This challenges us to think of local lives taking place within ‘activity spaces’ which expand well beyond administrative and even physical geographies. The interconnectedness of places, the ways in which these can influence people’s choices about where to live and work, and the ways in which they organise their lives within those places, pose challenges for zonal or place-based policy making.

Two Approaches to Spatial Targeting

The report presents two contrasting approaches to spatial targeting, each linked to specific policy paradigms and intervention logics. The first has been much influenced by neo-classical economics and support for targeting, monitoring and evaluation by quantitative indicators. The second is influenced by a more holistic ‘place-based’ view of rural/regional development, with an emphasis on well-being and inclusion, through maximising all forms of ‘territorial capital’ (economic, human, social and environmental).

Our two examples of targeting methodologies represent these contrasting paradigms. They are presented not as a basis for policy decisions but as demonstrations of alternative methodologies. Readers should note the associations of each with specific policy paradigms and that a mismatch between targeting approach and broader policy goals will raise challenges in implementation.

i) An ‘objective’, quantitative approach

First, we consider the potential of the small area population estimate (SAPE) data as a basis of objective indicators of geographical patterns of population change, which may in turn provide a robust and quantitative means of targeting policy.

We acknowledge that when analysing geographical patterns, the size and configuration of the spatial units are extremely important. Aggregating phenomena to larger or smaller areas, and changing the boundaries, can change the ‘picture’ revealed in the map, and consequently the interpretation of the process behind it, or the policy based upon it. There is arguably merit in using the (geographically) most detailed data available, in this case the SAPE. However, the fragmented pattern which emerges makes the identification of target zones for policy problematic.

Furthermore, we accept the validity of policy based upon complex shrinking processes, and the need to ‘capture’ the spatial patterns of behaviour of the population, rather than just the location of their residence. This suggests a need for policy ‘zones’ which encompass the ‘hotspots’ of population shrinking, but also reflect, as far as is feasible, the ‘activity spaces’ of the residents within the target data-zones.

With these caveats we present an illustrative analysis of how target areas could be identified through measuring the duration (number of years since peak population) and intensity (average annual population change since peak year) of population shrinkage.

We demonstrate that small towns generally have a longer duration of shrinking than rural areas, and that population decline has been going on longer in very remote small towns and remote/very remote rural areas. The smallest share of data-zones which have lost population for more than a decade is in accessible rural areas. A much greater share of data-zones in very remote small towns exhibit the most intense shrinking whilst the share is lowest amongst accessible rural data-zones.

To illustrate how such data may be used to identify a set of data-zones most affected by sustained population decline we combine the duration and intensity criteria. Once again, the very remote small-town category stands out as the most severely affected, with accessible rural data-zones at the opposite end of the spectrum.

A further step towards identifying potential policy target areas would be to calculate the share of data-zones defined as shrinking (and the associated population share) within commonly used administrative areas. For illustrative purposes we apply this procedure to Scotland’s 32 Council Areas, and the 47 travel-to-work-areas, however, we acknowledge serious problems with both as spatial units for targeting policy.

To reiterate, our findings are not intended as a recommendation for selection of zones for repopulation policy. They provide an example of an objective methodology for selecting target areas, which compares all parts of rural Scotland with consistent criteria. The benefits of using SAPE as an evidence base include ease of monitoring, with the potential to adjust the target area in response to changing population trends.

ii) A more integrated, narrative approach

An alternative methodology uses the statistical evidence in a more holistic and flexible way, to provide a more colourful ‘pen-picture’ of specific areas, integrating wider contextual information and the legacies of historical trends. The report offers illustrative examples of both island and rural mainland areas which might be the subject of repopulation policy. We draw attention to challenges for spatially targeted initiatives, and to local assets and characteristics which offer potential for effective interventions.

These examples explore the contemporary complexity of identifying boundaries and choosing the most appropriate types of policy intervention. As population decline has become much more localised and focused on quite limited spatial areas, with diverse causes and possible mitigations, the boundaries of the most seriously affected localities are increasingly hard to match to standard administrative or statistical units.

Moreover, affected localities, their population trends and residents’ lives are situated within complex and dynamic linkages to other places. This has significant implications for both the possibilities of zonal population initiatives and the physical and social space to which any policy action might apply. Focusing action within a single or a small cluster of data-zones which meet one or more of a particular set of qualifying criteria may have only a limited effect. The diversity of outside influences in different places implies that any proposed zonal policy would need to have very flexible qualifying criteria.

Applying Zonal or Place-based policies in practice: Lessons from historical and international experience?

The report presents lessons from practical applications of zonal or place-based policy by reviewing previous experiences with economic and industrial zones in the UK and international examples of place-based policies aiming to address population challenges.

i) Lessons from the past: Special Development Areas and their successors

The Special Areas (Development and Improvement) Act (1934) and its successors over several decades sought to manage uneven economic performance in different parts of the country by targeting areas with very high unemployment rates. The policy goal was to address regional socio-economic inequalities with only minor regard for the impacts on population size and movement. Policy interventions attempted to ‘steer’ industry and economic development towards target areas across large parts of UK, including Scotland. This was to be achieved through a variety of concessions on taxes and rents and Government funding to support development in target areas, as well as increased oversight and constraints on industrial development in the booming South-East and Midlands.

With a few notable exceptions, the selection of areas for intervention was based on negative criteria of high unemployment rates and economic depression, rather than on an assessment of development potential. The rigid application of thresholds created unanticipated problems and disincentives to investment as relatively modest successes could push an area to be deselected. There was also discontent over areas which were not included while their immediate neighbours were.

Whilst the policies had some success in creating jobs and attracting industrial development to target areas, they have been widely critiqued both at the time of their application and in retrospect. We draw together some overarching lessons as follows:

  • Application for support should be simple with an approval system that is capable of rapid response if a new opportunity arises.
  • Applications should provide evidence that population has declined and why but also reasons why it may continue to do so unless support is given.
  • Proposals which build on already existing new activity will be more likely to achieve their aims, and a demonstrable ability to build on existing activity might be a criterion for support.
  • A clear demonstration of local leadership and local support is essential.
  • Items eligible for support should be defined widely and supplementary support of a different kind might be required as successful initiatives develop over time.

If (notwithstanding the cautions outlined in the previous sections) an approach based on zones with ‘hard’ statistically defined boundaries is preferred, the SDA experience suggests some further pitfalls to be aware of:

  • The selection of areas should be based on a small number of basic numerical criteria, the figures for which are unambiguously and easily obtainable from official sources. Within these criteria, however, there are advantages in not having flexible boundaries on the upper or lower limits to the size of ‘zones’ that may be included.
  • A clear process is needed to judge when and how to 'end' designations as a 'zone' if areas move out of these criteria, to avoid there being a 'penalty' for success? A minimum timescale could, for example, be specified before a zone can be removed.
  • The boundary of a zone needs to be clearly justified with reasons why any spatial unit is either inside or outside it. A particular issue for population zones would be whether to include or exclude a town that is within or on the edge of a zone.
  • There is a danger that if a special inducement is given to a zone, spatial units in its immediate proximity will suffer disadvantages.
  • New incentive policy for selected areas should not be combined with attempts to restrict activity in unselected areas. However, disincentives within a population development zone might be feasible if applied with care.
  • Evaluation criteria should allow a multi-year (probably minimal five-year) timescale with intermediate deliverables for earlier evaluation.

ii) Lessons from international experience

The report examines examples of place-based policies aiming to address population challenges from four European countries (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) and from Canada. These are:

  • The Italian National Strategy for Inner Areas (SNAI), in existence since 2012. This spatially-targeted programme combines top-down and bottom-up elements. SNAI provides national support for local development efforts in 72 small scale target areas. This has recently been accompanied by a national debate about the role and prospects of remote rural areas, and the establishment of a ‘cultural association’ which champions the potential of ‘inner areas’, highlighting their neglect in mainstream economic narratives of urbanisation and globalisation
  • Spain’s National Strategy against the Demographic Challenge, published in 2017. The National Strategy sets goals and responsibilities for regional governments in a way which could be described as “demographic proofing”. Within Spain’s complex national and devolved governance and policy landscape, there are many examples of community and third sector initiatives to address rural depopulation. However, there has been a weaker response at the level of the Autonomous Regions. Only Aragón and Castilla y León have developed plans to deal with rural depopulation, neither of which have resulted in much practical implementation.
  • Germany’s national strategy “Every age counts”, was published in 2012, and revised in 2015. The strategy has four stated goals: to increase economic growth potential; to promote social and societal cohesion; to promote the equality of living conditions in the regions; to ensure solid finances - for the state's ability to act and the reliability of the social security system. Since 2018 this demographic strategy has become a key component in a wider national strategy to address geographic inequalities. However, a complex and crowded governance and policy landscape, involves state, county and municipal administrations, third sector organisations, voluntary and community groups, as well as multiple funders and projects. This has led to scepticism about policy effectiveness, ‘project fatigue’ and push-back against top-down administrative complexity.
  • The French ‘Rural Agenda’, a national strategy launched in 2019. Whilst not explicitly a repopulation policy, the Rural Agenda includes an underlying goal to mitigate and adapt to rural depopulation. The strategy emphasises rural territorial potentials, and the role played by local human and social capital in discovering smart responses to shrinking. It supports an equal right to live and to receive basic services in all rural areas. The strategy illustrates shifting policy priorities away from precise demarcation of zones and a quest for economic growth, towards recognition of subjective motives for moving (or staying) and an emphasis on spatial justice and citizens’ rights.
  • Canada’s ‘Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot’ launched in 2019. Based on collaboration between federal government, local communities and local economic development organisations, RNIP is an ‘economic migration stream’ which aims to attract and retain newcomers to Canada’s rural and northern communities. The pilot sets out to test a new approach to immigration selection and improve retention through a focus on welcome and social integration. The pilot has not been in existence for long enough to assess its success. A very early evaluation has raised issues related to: the challenges of drawing community boundaries, engaging with all members of the community, community capacity to undertake the various tasks/roles, issues related to funding and federal government-local collaboration .

Through a closer examination of these 5 examples, we explore similarities and differences between conceptualisations of shrinking, and approaches to tackling it. We consider strengths, weaknesses and challenges in the way interventions are implemented, drawing out lessons for Scotland.

It is important to acknowledge the significance of changing and distinctive policy contexts, and to compare the various ways in which the diagnosis of the demographic ‘problem’ is presented. Our examples reflect a shifting ‘zeitgeist’ in European policy frameworks from a neo-liberal economic mindset emphasising competitiveness and growth driven by innovation towards a focus on ‘softer’ goals measured in terms of well-being and inclusion.

The characteristics of specific policies are also shaped by national political traditions, local governance arrangements, and welfare regimes. These differences must be acknowledged in drawing lessons for Scotland, with its own rich and unique local policy history. Whilst this necessitates sensitivity, it does not invalidate the huge benefits which may be garnered from international comparisons, and an awareness of how rural ‘repopulation’ policies are carried out elsewhere. However, the constraints to comparability, and the need to adapt to national and local specificities must not be forgotten.

With this caveat in mind, we present the following key lessons for Scotland:

1. Approaches to spatial targeting: The five examples exhibit a range of approaches to spatial targeting. Both the Italian and French examples show a gradual shift from a mainly quantitative approach to identifying clearly delimited zones, to one where such zonal delimitation is less of a necessity. Hard boundaries are perhaps less appropriate in the context of approaches which address less tangible social issues, well-being, and spatial justice.

2. The importance of coherence: The German example illustrates very clearly a danger associated with zonal approaches to repopulation policy. Western European countries, including Scotland, have complex and sometimes cluttered local policy landscapes. National, regional and local policy stakeholders should consider very carefully whether introducing yet another layer of intervention will deliver additional benefit. Interaction between policies is not always positive and ‘coherence’, both horizontally and vertically is vital, but hard to achieve in practice. These are crucial considerations before introducing zonal repopulation policies in Scotland.

3. ‘Demographic Proofing’ tends to be passive and is potentially ‘toothless’. The risk of words not being followed by effective action is well illustrated by the Spanish example. Whilst a ‘proofing’ approach in theory addresses the need for coherence, unless it is accompanied by actions and delivery, it is unlikely to have much impact.

4. Shifting policy goals: All of the European examples indicate a reorientation of policy away from maintaining or increasing population numbers towards a focus upon well-being, and social/spatial justice, emphasising citizens’ rights to basic services wherever they wish to reside.

5. Responses to ageing should not be neglected: Age-group specific interventions can address the balance of migration whilst delivering psychological benefits and enhanced well-being.

6. Local community involvement in policy design and implementation is crucial: Intensive consultation, or better still, involvement in decision making ensures effective tailoring of interventions, and encourages ‘buy in’ and commitment.

To conclude, tackling Scotland’s population concerns is clearly an important policy issue. Changes in people’s individual behaviour, shifting local dynamics and new policy conversations emerging in this post-COVID period offer opportunities for a forward looking, collaborative approach. Repopulation zones, or alternative kinds of place-based policymaking may support innovative interventions. However, the implications, and potential for unintended repercussions, of any approach need to be carefully thought through, with goals and intervention logics clearly defined. We have suggested some key principles to follow, grounded in historical and international examples, which we hope will be instructive.



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