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.


The concept of ‘repopulation zones’ has emerged in Scotland over the past 2-3 years, initially as an initiative of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (COHI), and subsequently picked up in the 2021 SNP manifesto, as a commitment to investigate their effectiveness in “supporting settlement across Scotland” (Scottish National Party 2021). Scottish Government then committed, at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in October 2021, to undertake exploratory work into the concept of repopulation zones. Although widely used across the developed world in the past in the context of regional or urban development policy, ‘zonal approaches’ are less common as a response to the issue of (rural) population retention. The objective of this report therefore is to review the concept of zonal policymaking as it has been defined and used in the past and to explore how it could be applied in the context of repopulation in rural Scotland. In doing so we consider related concepts of ‘[neo]endogenous development’ and ‘place-based policy-making’ more commonly referred to in the (academic) literature on rural development, and discuss the potential challenges and outcomes of developing zonal policy interventions as a response to Scotland’s rural population challenges.

Although our brief is to consider interventions which are focused and implemented within specific localities, these inevitably interact with ‘horizontal’ policies, which respond to the challenges facing particular industries, or social groups in rural contexts, for example agricultural, economic, industrial, health and social care, or education policies. It will also be helpful to maintain a distinction between spatially targeted assistance and wider regional and rural policy, although again, the impacts of these cannot be dismissed as important elements of the context of zonal or place-based interventions.

The task is not to recommend specific policy choices for Scotland, either in terms of types of measures, or their spatial targeting, but to articulate what are often tacit questions and assumptions regarding intervention logic, and to enrich and structure the evidence base, in support of the ongoing policy dialogue between the Scottish Government and other actors (both in the public and ‘third’ sectors) at regional, Council, and community levels.

The COHI Initiative

COHI (Convention of the Highlands and Islands) is a forum for local government, a development agency (HIE), other public sector service providers and agencies, and the third sector. The Scottish Government fulfils a convening role for this group. Recent meetings (twice yearly in March and October) have been chaired by Ministers, and the minutes (together with supporting documents) are made available through the Scottish Government website.

The origin of the Repopulation Zone initiative was a document produced by three Councils (Western Isles, Argyll and Bute and Highland) and HIE for the COHI meeting of March 2020 and re-submitted in October 2020 (Convention of the Highlands and Islands, 2020). The initiative was timed to coincide with the publication of the Scottish Government’s population strategy document (Scottish Government, 2021), and led to the establishment of a working group, the main members of which were the three councils and HIE, plus North Ayrshire council. (Note: the group’s activities have been documented in detail in three subsequent ‘update’ documents, presented in the meetings of Marc h and October 2021 , and March 2022) (Convention of the Highlands and Islands 2021a; Convention of the Highlands and Islands 2021b). The concept of Repopulation Zone (RZ) first appeared in an update of the original document for the March 2021 meeting and is presented in greater detail in the update of October 2021.

The main characteristics of RZs as conceived by the COHI working Group are:

1. They are intrinsically place-based initiatives, focused upon closely bounded areas of population decline. Four such areas are proposed in the October update:

  • Outer Hebrides: Uist
  • Highland: North West Sutherland
  • North Ayrshire Council: Arran and Cumbrae
  • Argyll & Bute: Tiree & Coll, Kintyre (Tarbet to Southend), Rothesay and the Rosneath peninsula

2. The way in which the list is presented, and the use of the term “locally led population pilot interventions”, suggests that each RZ will be managed by the relevant local Council.

3. Again, the impression is given that each RZ will have a repopulation programme which will comprise a mix of existing measures, already part of Council activities, some of them “boosted” in the RZ area, together with new measures, specific to the RZ.

4. These measures are organised into 5 thematic groups: (i) Housing, (ii) Jobs, (iii) Critical Infrastructure – Transport and Digital, (iv) Access to public services, (v) Talent Attraction, Retention and Return.

5. Each of the Councils and HIE will employ ‘resettlement officers’ to support in-migrants in various ways.

A further update in March 2022 gives an impression of the current state of play. Whilst each of the four councils is developing at its own pace and with slightly different mixes of activities, the frequency of interaction between them reflects the commitment to information sharing, and an openness to suggestions. Both the update, and the subsequent discussion make clear that the RZ initiative is not viewed as a ‘standalone’ response to demographic change. Rather it is fully integrated with various other actions which tackle complex and interdependent demographic, economic and social challenges. This holistic approach is well summarised by a concluding comment made during a presentation from Highlands and Islands Enterprise:; “the primary issues remain housing, transport, connectivity and increasingly energy and grid connectivity. … these remain the really wicked challenges that we're facing in these areas of depopulation.” (COHI 2022b)

The transcript of the subsequent discussion reveals that the representatives of the various councils and agencies are very aware of the link between population change and the wider economic and social development processes and view the causal link as ‘two-way’. It is not just that population retention depends upon the creation of opportunities for economic activity. Those seeking to promote business development perceive population decline, and the associated human capital shortage as a brake, or a hindrance, likely to deny them success.

Structure of the report

This report is structured as follows: In Section 1 we reflect upon the concept of ‘repopulation policy’, the underlying goals which can drive different ‘repopulation’ approaches, and different styles of spatial targeting. The section ends by presenting a number of key questions for consideration regarding the goals, challenges and potential of place-based or zonal repopulation policy. Section 2 begins with a brief summary of the pattern and trends of local population change in Scotland for which zonal policies have been envisaged as a response, presenting two perspectives which highlight some challenges in determining a spatial focus for ‘repopulation policies’. This leads into Section 3 which presents two contrasting approaches to the targeting of policy; zones with hard boundaries defined by quantitative indicators, and a more flexible, holistic, “place-based” approach. Section 4 first explores historical examples of zonal or regional policy-making as applied to economic development within the UK and then considers 5 case study examples of spatially targeted policies designed to address rural population challenges in other national contexts. In each of these subsections we highlight a number of strengths and weakness and emphasise lessons to be learned from historical and/or international practice, framing them for consideration by the various actors across Scotland’s complex system of governance.



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