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.

1. ‘Repopulation’ policy and the potential of place-based approaches

Scotland is not alone in exhibiting a rising interest in population trends and related policy. Concern is manifest across the developed world. Total fertility rates across most of Europe are now well below replacement levels, and nobody really knows whether what lies ahead for national populations is a steady state, or a slow decline (Sato and Yamamoto, 2005, Coleman and Rowthorn 2011, Lutz and Gailey 2020).

In the European discourse the adjective ‘shrinking’ is a popular shorthand for population decline. The term was initially applied to cities but has since become common usage in relation to regions or rural areas (Müller and Siedentop 2004, Grasland 2008). A recent report (ESPON 2020) found that almost two-thirds of rural regions[1] across Europe, containing 40% of Europe’s population, are ‘shrinking’. However, although all these regions had similar outcomes in terms of population trends, it is crucial to recognise that the economic and social processes underlying this shared experience are far from uniform. Another way to describe this is to distinguish ‘simple shrinking’, the demographic process driven by natural decrease and migration - from ‘complex shrinking’, which embeds population change into a multi-faceted economic and social spiral of decline (Sepp and Veemaa 2017). The ‘narratives’ which describe these wider shrinking processes, and their drivers, are highly variable between specific geographical, cultural and political contexts. This is obvious, for example, when comparing shrinking processes in the Baltic States, or other former socialist EU Member States, with those of western Scotland. It is equally true, though on a different scale or level of detail, when comparing different localities within Scotland.

It has been suggested (ESPON 2020) that the drivers of complex shrinking observed across a range of European rural contexts fall into four categories:

  • Economic restructuring
  • Locational disadvantage
  • Peripherization[2]
  • Disruptive Events and Political/Systematic Transitions

Combinations of two or more of these drivers are common.

As population outcomes have risen up the (rural/regional) policy agendas of many developed countries, there has simultaneously been an increasing appreciation that what systems theorists call ‘equifinality’ (similar outcomes from different drivers and processes), implies a need for place-tailored policy responses to unique local or regional narratives of decline. There are very few examples of interventions which are purely targeted on the components of population change. The vast majority of policies which tackle population change (such as those described in Section 4.2) attempt to disrupt the locality’s, or region’s, systemic socio-economic cycle of decline.

1.1 Reconsidering policy goals – towards Strategic Mitigation

As in the realm of climate change, there are, broadly speaking, two options in terms of policy responses to population decline; mitigation (changing the trend) and adaptation (living with, or neutralising the effects of decline). An extreme form of adaptation, which has been advocated in both urban and rural contexts (Rink et al 2009, Hollander and Németh 2011, Peters et al. 2017) is ‘smart shrinking’. However, such approaches are not popular with democratically elected representatives, since they are difficult to sell to voters (Syssner 2016, 2020), and reminiscent in the UK of County Durham’s controversial Category D villages (Pattison 2004).

In this report our focus is primarily upon mitigation. However, it is important to keep in mind that day-to-day service provision management and decision making by Scotland’s rural Councils, public sector agencies, private companies, and the third sector are, to a considerable extent, adaptation responses, aimed at neutralising the additional costs associated with a declining number of sparsely distributed service users.

Even if mitigation is the objective, there is scope to vary the ultimate goal of intervention, whether explicitly articulated, or implied. The conventional thinking in rural development circles has always been ‘growth is good’, and depopulation is something which prompts corrective interventions. Similarly, an unbalanced age structure has been seen most commonly as a problem, not an opportunity. Policy documents, at local, regional and even national level tend to set population growth as a goal, even if there is strong evidence to suggest that this is unrealistic. However, a number of euphemisms for adaptation are beginning to creep in, especially in international contexts, where the pressure of democratic consequences is less direct. Thus, the European Commission’s Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas (EC 2021) talks of “balanced territorial development”, whilst the OECD’s Rural Policy 3.0 (OECD, 2019) talks frankly of “adapting to demographic change”, whilst shifting the focus to economic resilience and well-being. A ‘top-heavy’ age structure has been seen as bringing potential for developing a ‘silver economy’ in European contexts (Klimczuk 2016, EC 2018), including Ireland (Lenihan and McGuirk 2022).

From an academic perspective a similarly pragmatic view is expressed by Pinilla and Saez, who argue against “defining fascinating goals which are impossible to achieve, as if we were able to change structural and global trends” (Pinilla and Saez 2021). For sparsely populated areas, they propose, “the relevant question is not how many people live there. In a digital and global world, thresholds are changing every day. The question is whether people are able to live in a remote rural area because they want to live there. A better life in remote rural areas is the objective, how many is the consequence” (Pinilla and Saez 2021).

Recent Scottish Government documents have nuanced objectives away from the pursuit of growth in all contexts. For example, the National Islands Plan seeks to “address population decline” and “ensure a healthy, balanced population profile” (Scottish Government 2019). The Population Strategy talks of “maintaining a sustainable balance of people across Scotland’s urban, rural and remote areas…” (Scottish Government 2021).

The EAG has previously put forward the concept of ‘strategic mitigation’ as an appropriate goal for rural and remote areas. In our fifth report, which explored the options for a rural visa pilot scheme, the concept was presented as follows: “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 on attracting migrants with the skills and profile that would best address the social and economic challenges created by population decline” (EAG 2021). The goal of strategic mitigation when thinking about rural population policies more broadly would be to ensure continued economic and social viability for communities. This does not imply repopulation or stabilisation of all localities, artificially blocking the evolution of settlement patterns in a changing technological and mobility context. Success would primarily be measured in terms of community well-being rather than demographic or economic growth.

1.2 Intervention logics, Exogenous vs Endogenous approaches, and styles of spatial targeting

At the end of this section, we pose a series of questions, highlighting issues which need to be considered when designing a place-based approach to rural population decline. Some of these imply clarification of goals or relate specifically to the process of defining zones and boundaries. Others are more generic rural policy considerations, which apply even if spatial targeting is more flexible. They point to the fundamental concepts and principles of intervention logic which are briefly considered here.

Intervention logics are the conceptual frameworks which connect policy actions to the understanding (or assumptions) about the nature of the problem addressed. Ideally these are explicit, and carefully thought through, in a step-by-step, structured, way. In practice there is a risk that they are implicit or based upon assumptions rather than evidence.[3] Very detailed and elaborate intervention logics are sometimes presented in the form of ‘theories of change’ (Connell and Kubisch 1998, Taplin and Clark 2012, Blamey and MacKenzie 2012, Vogel 2012, Stein and Valters 2012). Although this level of detail is inappropriate in the context of this report, it will, nevertheless, be helpful to 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 are the stepping-stones between. The latter also often play a key role in evaluating the progress achieved by an intervention.

A plethora of generic intervention logics have featured in initiatives to combat population decline in rural Scotland, and they have evolved over time. For historical reasons land ownership issues were the starting point of the earliest response (i.e. the crofting legislation). Later, agricultural policy combatted depopulation by Hill Livestock Compensatory Payments to farmers, who, it was assumed, would otherwise drift away to take up urban employment. From the middle of the last century the Highlands and Islands Development Board sought to reverse the decline by attracting large scale industrial investment (in aluminium, pulp, and, more recently, renewable energy), based on the assumption that the ‘Highland problem’ was rooted in its economic structure, and lack of manufacturing activity. Transport infrastructure improvements reflected a logic about accessibility and transport costs (Copus 2018). Growth pole theories and spread effects were also important at this time, and have an enduring appeal for regional policy makers, remaining at the heart of the city-region programme (Copus et al. 2022).

Given the evidence that remoteness is a key common characteristic of shrinking rural areas in Scotland, readers may find it helpful to refer to investigations funded by both the European Commission and the OECD, into the potential of policy to support rural-urban interaction through partnerships (Kawka et al 2012, OECD 2013). These may offer a way to sidestep the disadvantages of a conventional focus on transport infrastructure investments, which though they reduce absolute travel-times, do nothing to reduce relative locational disadvantage, and have often resulted in perverse ‘pump effects[4]’ which exacerbate the weaknesses of peripheral economies (Copus 2001). It has long been recognised that improvements in information technology, and network access also has the potential to reduce the (relative) locational disadvantages of remote areas, and the issue of levelling the playing field in terms of broadband speed is very much part of the current rural policy discourse.

More recent community development initiatives (including LEADER) have sought to strengthen social capital and find ‘softer’ ways to build development on the basis of the full range of local resources, including the environment and culture. Local stakeholders often point to the shortage of affordable housing in remote rural areas as a key constraint to development.

At risk of over-simplification, it is fair to say that, in Scotland, over the past half century or so there has been a gradual shift from interventions which could be described as ‘exogenous’, in that they depend upon the injection of outside resources and expertise, associated with ‘top-down’, centralised governance, towards ‘endogenous’ initiatives which depend upon local human and social capital, and a range of local assets. This trend is a reflection of a wider European gravitation towards what are sometimes termed ‘smart’ approaches.

It is important to be clear at this point that smart policy responses are not synonymous with ‘smart shrinking’. Rather we are referring to concepts such as ‘smart villages’, which have been promoted by the European Network for Rural Development (link). Arguably the smart village initiative is a re-packaging of the previously recognised good practice of building upon local assets and resources (economic, physical, human, and social) through endogenous initiatives, rather than ‘top-down’ programmes imposed from outside. The smart village approach often (but not necessarily) incorporates new technology and digitalisation. The use of the word ‘smart’ is reminiscent of ‘smart specialisation’ (Da Rosa Pires et al. 2014, ESPON 2020), where it conveys the idea of being well-adapted to local contexts and needs. Smart village approaches may be formulated to address a range of long-standing rural development concerns, (geographical disadvantages, remoteness, sparsity, peripheralization, inner peripheries, or capital deficiencies in various forms) which are not necessarily linked to depopulation. However, where they are a response to population decline, they usually focus on sustaining well-being, rather than setting out to reverse the demographic trend. (Note: The term ‘älykäs sopeutuminen’ (smart adaptation) has been used to describe municipality-level responses to depopulation in Finland (Kahila et al. 2021)).

An interesting Scottish application of these ideas is the Rural Housing Scotland/Stòras Uibhist ‘Smart Clachan’ initiative on South Uist: “a new affordable housing initiative in response to depopulation and climate change. A Smart Clachan is a development which incorporates energy efficient homes alongside shared amenities, such as a workspace and outdoor space, to enable people to move and remain in the community”(link). The use of a Gaelic name is significant. It reflects the concern to build an ‘intervention logic’ which responds directly to the local conditions which have resulted in depopulation, and the place-specific potentials which can play a role in reversing it. This is a crucial element of ‘smart’ policies.

In parallel with the shift away from exogenous approaches, towards place-based interventions which are developed for and with local communities, styles of spatial targeting have changed. At the end of the last century zones with ‘hard’ boundaries, defined by statistical indicators seemed essential (Note: Objective 5b of the EU Structural Funds is a classic example (Copus and Crabtree 1992)). Objectivity of boundaries and the ability to measure impacts were priorities. More recently, perhaps due to the rising popularity of qualitative research methods, together with an awareness of the complexity of defining 'places' as behavioural arenas, less emphasis has been placed upon defining hard boundaries, and more upon engaging the key actors within a local society and economy.[5]

1.3 Questions arising for place-based or ‘zonal’ approaches

The foregoing brief review of the recent academic and policy discourse on rural depopulation raises some important questions to keep in mind as policymakers, communities and experts proceed to think more specifically about the goals, challenges and potential of place-based or zonal policy for remote rural Scotland.

  • In a medium-long term view, is reducing age-structure effects on natural increase (by expanding population in childbearing ages, and reducing the preponderance of older inhabitants) as important as a simple increase in total population?
  • Should repopulation policy address simple/narrow repopulation goals, or complex shrinking processes? In other words, should ‘RZ’ initiatives focus upon restoring head counts, population density or settlement patterns of the past, or upon nurturing self-sustaining communities, which can flourish, providing economic activity and individual/social well-being in a twenty-first century technological context? Does this imply that creative (but sometimes tough) decisions may need to be made, focusing on potential, and facilitating evolution?
  • Do these overarching objectives have implications for the way in which a ‘repopulation’ initiative is targeted – how boundaries are drawn? Is there a need to consider the ‘activity space’ of the supported community, - i.e. the locations at which economic activity, leisure, service access, and so on, are carried out, - not just the place of residence? We know that many of the areas which are experiencing depopulation are remote from larger population centres, including islands, within which the opportunities for economic activities are severely constrained. Nevertheless, there are also pockets of growth within remote rural areas. Often these are close to, but not necessarily within, small towns or villages. This raises the question of whether delimitation of zones for ‘repopulation’ policy is simply a process of drawing a line around areas where the demographic trend is negative. Is there an argument for a more creative and multi-dimensional exercise, somehow taking account of the behavioural arena associated with a balanced and sustainable community?
  • In terms of the form of intervention which is carried out within the ‘repopulation zone’, how can it be tailored as a ‘smart’ response to the specific local drivers of the process 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? This might include taking account of shifts in working practices accelerated by COVID lockdowns, but also anticipating the continued technology-driven evolution of economic activity exemplified by concepts such as ‘industry 4.0’, (Maja et al 2020) distributed manufacturing, ‘zoom towns’, (Sodja 2021) and so on.
  • 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, notably the need for affordable housing, good quality employment, accessible services and improved infrastructure (both information technology and transport)?
  • Since the consequences of ‘complex shrinking’ impinge on such a broad range of policy areas, how can synergies between zonal population interventions and the broader policy/governance landscape be maximised?
  • Finally, how can repopulation zone policies avoid the unintended effects commonly associated with spatially targeted interventions, notably ‘displacement’ of population from adjacent areas outside their boundary?[6]



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