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.

4. Applying Zonal or Place-based policies in practices: What can we learn from historical and international experience?

In this final section we focus more specifically on zonal or place-based policy-making as it has been used in practice. In the first half of the section we consider ways in which zonal policies have been applied historically in the UK mainly through interventions aiming to manage uneven economic performance in different parts of the country with a goal of addressing socio-economic inequalities between regions and with only a very minor regard for the impacts on population size and movement. In the second half we discuss contemporary policies designed to address local and regional population challenges. Here we draw on 5 international examples, exploring interventions which are targeted upon specific geographical areas in Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Canada. Each of these subsections ends by emphasising a number of key lessons to be learned from and/or questions raised by the analysis. Alongside the questions raised at the end of section 1 we hope these will form a useful reference point for further policy deliberations within Scotland.

4.1 A brief UK history of ‘zonal’ economic and industrial policy interventions: Special Development Areas and their successors

A renewed surge in unemployment in the early 1930s led to pressure on the UK Government to restart a public works relief programme of the kind that had first been developed in the 1920s. The Special Areas (Development and Improvement) Act (1934) was targeted on areas with very high unemployment rates. These included South Wales, Tyneside, west Cumberland and, in Scotland, a particular focus on West Central Scotland: ‘most of industrial Lanarkshire except Glasgow’ (Levitt 1992). Two Special Areas Commissioners (one for Scotland, and one for England and Wales) were appointed, with powers to give grants to local authorities for various activities to encourage economic development and also social /environmental improvement.

The allocated budget brought little by way of new money, but rather a more focused and controlled programme of relief than before, because the predominant view of Government was that the only way to resolve the huge unemployment problem of some parts of the UK was to encourage mass migration of the unemployed to the rapidly expanding new manufacturing areas of the south and midlands of England. There was, therefore, under this Act, only minimal focus on attracting new industry, and much more on ‘assisting with the physical renovation of ‘derelict’ areas and restoring workers’ ‘morale’’ (Levitt 1992).

Over the next three years, however, in a context of a growing contrast between a relatively booming south-east of England, and the continuing depression in the mining and heavy industry areas of some other parts of the UK, pressure increased for more active and explicit Government economic development intervention: for example, by establishing a government holding company to finance new industrial estates, with a new focus on attracting the kind of light industry which underpinned much of the high employment rates in the south. There was also growing support for a more active programme seeking to ‘steer’ industry to Scotland from the south. The issue of possible extensions to the areas covered by the Act was also raised by Scottish Office officials (to include Glasgow, Wanlochhead and even parts of the Highlands, thus illustrating three different kinds of problems).

The Special Areas (Amendment) Act 1937 introduced new concessions on taxes and rents with the aim of encouraging businesses to set up in the 1934 Act areas, and powers were given to the Scottish Commissioner to assist in the establishment of new industrial estates; one result was the new Hillington Industrial Estate on the fringes of Glasgow. However, in the immediate post-war period, English firms showed great reluctance to move to Clydeside, citing distance from their principal markets in the south. There were also hints of concern due to perceptions of pre-war labour relations in Scottish industrial areas and a view of these areas as environmentally unattractive (Levitt 1992).

The Distribution of Industry Act (1945) was in principle a major step forward. It substantially extended the number of what were now called ‘Development Areas’. In England and Wales, these included Merseyside, Wrexham, Wigan/St Helens, and North-east Lancashire. In Scotland, the Act covered not only the original Scottish ‘Special Area’ but also Glasgow, North Ayrshire and Dundee and its environs. In 1948, a small area centred on Inverness was added; significantly this addition was made on the basis that it had been identified as an area with expansion potential (especially linked to hydro-electricity), rather than just due to high unemployment (DTI North West Regional Office 1989). Further areas bordering the Cromarty and Beauly Firths and the burghs of Irvine and Linlithgow were added in 1949.

The Board of Trade took over decision-making responsibility for awards, and Government funding became available to build factories for rental to private firms and to directly manage industrial estates. Loans and other facilities could be made available to industrialists wishing to establish plants in the scheduled areas. There was also a general requirement laid on any firm wishing to establish a factory of more than a certain size to discuss the location with the Board of Trade, and, under this Act, Scottish Office staff had the right to comment on any proposed development elsewhere in the UK. Also, any de-scheduling of existing areas was conditional on the Scottish Secretary’s agreement. In parallel with this, there was a continuation of the wartime policy of limiting factory building in what came to be called ‘Congested Districts’ (mainly in London and the South-east but more controversially also in the Birmingham area and much of the rest of the Midlands). These powers were incorporated in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act in the form of Industrial Development Certificates.

There were claims that, by 1950, Scottish projects in the Central Belt under the Act had created 60,000 jobs, and 15,000 elsewhere.[13] When Inverness was added to the scheme, there were also significant developments in support of the drive for hydro-electricity. Not all, however, was positive. Some attempted interventions resulted in failure (see below), and it became increasingly ‘clear that there was not enough ‘footloose’ English industry on the move in any one year to make a significant difference to employment, even if building in the South-East was restricted’ (Levitt, 1992: 37).

A new Distribution of Industry (Industrial Finance) Act 1958 started a focus down onto smaller areas with the possibility of some grants to areas outside the core areas (e.g. parts of Cornwall). But it also saw a clear shift back to high unemployment rather than development potential as the criterion for awarding support. This Act extended grants and loans to all forms of trade not just manufacturing.

The Local Employment Act 1960 changed the spatial geography for supported areas to (the much smaller) Local Employment Exchange Areas, with the prime criterion being the level of unemployment in each of these areas. This introduced a problem: the rigid use of this criterion meant that the opening of one large new factory could move an area below the unemployment threshold and thus rapidly lead to its descheduling, thus introducing great uncertainty in the minds of incoming firms and even a major disincentive to taking part in the scheme. At the same time, the development potential of an area was completely ignored. By 1966, nearly 17% of the UK was covered, including most of Cornwall and North Devon, the Highlands and Islands and rural north Wales. But, right from the start, there was discontent, notably in North Wales, over areas which were not included while their immediate neighbours were [Lord MacDonald of Gwaenysgor in Second Reading Lords debate on the 1960 Bill] (Hansard, 1960a).

Other important points mentioned in the same House of Lords debate were the importance of rapid decision-making and very clear and easily calculated criteria for the size of awards, and the desirability of being able to designate areas with expected, but not yet high, unemployment. Several speakers in the same debate stressed the importance of funds for high quality publicity if foreign or distant employers were to be attracted to an area (Hansard, 1960b).

By then there was also quite widespread anxiety over the working of some of the provisions of the successive acts. It proved in practice extremely difficult to dissuade firms from staying in, or even moving from Scotland to, the south-east. For example, in 1948, despite strong pressure from the Scottish Office, Harold Wilson, then the President of the Board of Trade, agreed to Ford undertaking a major factory expansion in Dagenham, fearing a loss of exports if he tried to force it to be located on Clydebank. And, in 1954, British European Airways won a battle to move their maintenance depot from Renfrew Airport and to consolidate their activities at Heathrow.

It is nevertheless clear that the various Acts did provide significant support for the creation of new employment opportunities in Scotland. To take just one example, between April 1960 and February 1963, in response to a Parliamentary Question in March 1963, the President of the Board of Trade replied that grants of £42.1 million were taken up in Scotland, supporting the creation of 32,800 jobs (Hansard 1963). More generally, much research published in the 1970s supported the view that powers exercised under the various pieces of regional policy legislation had played a positive role in enhancing employment in the special areas up to that time. For example, Ashcroft and Taylor (1977) showed that around 500 firms had relocated to development areas in the 1960s, and Frost (1975) made a strong case for the positive impact of regional employment policy in the north of England.

More recent assessments are more equivocal. It is, for example, clear that by no means all the projects that were funded were well thought through (the Ravenscraig steelworks, or the Fort William pulp mill are well known examples). More generally, it has been hard to prove long-term positive impact even on the localities concerned (Bartels, Nicol and van Duijn 1982) and others have noted that while there may be positive impacts on the areas that receive support, this can easily be to the detriment of areas from which assistance has been withheld, or even to the national economy as a whole.

One particularly powerful critique has come from Broadberry and Leunig who suggest that limits on firms expanding on existing or proximate sites misunderstood ‘agglomeration economies’ or ‘cluster effects’ [These include the huge benefits that firms obtain from operating near to competitors and specialist technical and other support infrastructure, and the resulting fall in productivity and operating inefficiency that can result if clustering is not allowed (even ignoring proximity to markets, management duplication etc] (Broadberry and Leunig 2013). It is not denied that these policies had some successes (e.g. attracting Nikon to Sunderland). However, high rates of rejection in ‘Congested Areas’ did not automatically result in new developments in ‘Development Areas’. For example, in 1966, 30% of requests in the Midlands and the South-east were refused, yet only 18% of the refused applicants moved their developments to areas favoured by Government; more than half of firms chose a smaller expansion on their existing sites, 13% abandoned expansion plans altogether, 18% reorganised or closed their factory, and 1% moved abroad (Wettman and Nicol 1981).

4.1.1 Learning for the design and implementation of place-based population policy

In view of both the (limited) successes and the considerable critique of the special development areas and related policies outlined above, we draw together some overarching lessons for place-based or zonal policymaking:

Furthermore, if (notwithstanding the cautions outlined in sections 2 and 3 above) an approach based on zones with ‘hard’ statistically defined boundaries is preferred, the SDA experience suggests some further pitfalls to be aware of:

4.2 Policy responses to local/regional population challenges in other national contexts

In this section we examine policies designed to address local and regional population challenges, with a focus on interventions which are targeted upon specific geographical areas. We discuss examples from four European countries, and from Canada. We explore similarities and differences between conceptualisations of the process of shrinking, and approaches to tackling it. We consider strengths, weaknesses and challenges in the way interventions are implemented, in pursuit of lessons for Scotland. The examples are presented in roughly chronological order, beginning with those which began roughly a decade ago, and finishing with those which are currently in process of implementation. Before we begin to describe specific policy initiatives, 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.

4.2.1 The importance of policy context

The policy examples described below are all, to some extent, ‘children of their time’, reflecting both the wider economic and social situations, the changing dynamics of geo-politics, and shifting policy ‘vogues’. Events such as the 2008 economic crisis, and COVID-19 pandemic, act as turning points in the development of different ‘paradigms’, although there are long lags in terms of practical implementation, and most policy is hybrid, inheriting features which can be associated with several rationales. To some extent the “zeitgeist” within which policy is created is common across Europe, and even across the developed world, and as such it is reflected in the statements of international bodies such as the European Commission and the OECD, which both respond to shifts which occur in national contexts, but also play a proactive role in driving the evolution of ideas. In the examples described below it is possible to observe a transition from the neo-liberal economic mindset associated (in Europe at least) with the EU’s Lisbon Agenda (2000) and the OECD’s New Rural Paradigm (2006), - with its emphasis upon competitiveness, growth driven by innovation, as manifest in expanding entrepreneurship and employment, towards an orientation focused on ‘softer’ goals measured in terms of well-being and inclusion, best summed up in the OECD’s ‘Rural Policy 3.0’ (2018), the EU ‘smart village’ approach, and (2021) Long Term Vision for rural areas.

It is also clear that the characteristics of specific policies are very much affected by national political traditions, local governance arrangements, and welfare regimes (Esping-Anderson 2015). The implication is that the lessons for Scotland need to take account of such differences. For example, the evolution of interventions in Spain or Germany have been conditioned by federal governance structures, whilst those in Nordic countries reflect the Nordic welfare model, and the relative autonomy of municipalities. In Central and Eastern Europe approaches reflect various legacies from the socialist period, whilst those of North America have characteristics derived from their recent settlement history and ‘anglo-saxon’ gestation.

Scotland, of course, has a rich and unique local policy history, many aspects of which have already been noted in previous sections of this report. 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 importance of taking account of different national contexts, and the gradual international learning process which drives paradigm shifts, lies in the need to appreciate the constraints to comparability, and the need to adapt to national and local specificities.

4.2.2 Diagnostic narratives and goals

The analogies which are used to describe the shrinking process and its complex effects are very revealing about the way in which shrinking is perceived, and the diagnoses which are the basis for the intervention logic of the policy response. It would be fair to say that, in all the examples we will present below, the aspatial/context-blind application of neoliberal notions of competitiveness, or growth, driven by innovation and entrepreneurship, is seen to be insufficient. Four generic kinds of analogy can be distinguished:

  • Emptying and filling areas. This picture, which features in the Italian and Spanish examples, views areas as containers with a finite capacity, and that either emptying or over-filling with population has undesirable social and economic consequences.
  • Regional (im)balance – Similar to the previous one, but focusing upon relative rates of change, rather than deviation from a fixed capacity, this analogy underlies the Scottish Government’s population strategy, and takes the form of a concern about a drift from West to East. In Germany, the flow is in the opposite direction, while in France the movement is from NE to SE. According to this perspective the problem centres on the costs associated with a widening mismatch between population, service provision, infrastructure and housing stock, rather than absolute numbers of inhabitants, abandonment or ‘desertification’. In Canada, particularly in remote and rural contexts issues of ageing and youth out-migration and the drift towards the main metro cities has led to a similar discourse as in Germany .
  • Human/social capital disempowerment are both drivers and effects of long-term demographic decline. In France this analogy is particularly perceived in the weakening of the ambitions and innovation capacity of younger people in affected areas.
  • Well-being and spatial (in)justice – These are key concepts in the German strategy and are also evident in the French discourse. The idea is that demographic change affects living conditions and spatial inequalities, and creates “spatial injustices” which are self-perpetuating, leading to a negative spiral in terms of local development. The Italian Inner Areas programme associates “citizen rights” with access to basic services. Such citizen rights are placed alongside growth as fundamental drivers of long-term sustainability of population. A rights-based approach is also evident in Scotland’s population strategy, as well as being an underlying theme in the Islands Act and the National Islands Plan. As in all Scottish Government policy there are links to the logic which underpins the National Performance Framework.

In terms of goals, all the policy examples we have selected focus mainly on (partial) mitigation, rather than adaptation. Specific outcomes (through which ‘repopulation’ is, indirectly, delivered) are various, and often not tightly specified. They include things like housing market adjustments, “reactivating” the ambitions of young people, increased residential attractiveness, and promoting well-being. Although neo-liberal terminology is not hard to find in the policy documents and the accompanying discourse, the overall perspective is not solely focused on economic growth, commonly emphasising the rights of all inhabitants to societal and individual benefits (such as well-being, social/spatial justice, inclusion, access and support; economic opportunities, feeling safe, identity and belonging).

4.2.3 The Policy Examples

The five examples are drawn from Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and Canada. It is important to stress that these examples are drawn from available secondary sources, and that their focus and content is selective. They are not intended to be scientifically comparable. Each has a distinctive message about aspects of local policy addressing population decline, although common themes also emerge.

i) Italy: A child of its time?

Here we focus on the National Strategy for Inner Areas (‘Strategia Nazionale per le Aree Interne, SNAI), which has run since 2012, and is a classic example of a (neo-endogenous) spatially targeted programme which combines top-down and bottom-up elements. SNAI provides support for local development efforts through national support for 72 small scale target areas in various types of rural context, comprising 3.5% of the population and 16.7% of the total area of Italy (Barca et al. 2014). This well-established policy has recently been accompanied by a national debate about the role and prospects of remote rural areas, under the title “Riabitare ltalia” (Repopulating Italy), and the establishment of a ‘cultural association’ which champions the potential of ‘inner areas’ and highlights their neglect in the mainstream economic narrative of urbanisation and globalisation.

The SNAI programme began with a statistical pre-screening of the approximately 8,000 municipalities of Italy. The assumption was that the areas most in need of regeneration were those which were remote from medium-sized or large service centres. These were defined by the presence of a full range of secondary education, a hospital, and a railway station. Municipalities were then classified according to their travel time from such service centres. Those within 20 minutes travel time were classified as “belt” areas. Those which were 20-40 minutes travel time from service centres were described as “intermediate”. “Remote” municipalities were those situated 40-75 minutes away from centres, and those more than 75 minutes, “ultra-remote”. The 4,261 municipalities which fell within the last three categories became the ‘long list’ candidates for SNAI assistance. A second stage in the target area selection process, which aimed to identify the most ‘needy’ contiguous groups of municipalities, involved desk analysis of more than 100 indicators, (including those capturing population trends and ageing), followed by field visits by programme staff.

After selection of project areas, the next step was to organise an extensive local consultation process, centred on a focus group, involving local mayors, municipality staff, service providers, the third sector, and representatives of various central government departments, to determine how best to frame the intervention in response to the particular local challenges. The choice reflected perceived local potential across the following fields:

  • land management and forests;
  • local food products;
  • renewable energy;
  • natural and cultural heritage;
  • traditional handicraft and SMEs.

The progress of each project has been monitored against specific targets and outcomes, which are regarded as stepping-stones towards the ultimate objective of turning around population decline and improving the age structure. The initiative is supported by a sophisticated multi-level governance framework, coordinating actors at all administrative levels, from national to local, and assembling a funding package from a range of national and EU sources.

The Riabitare ltalia initiative parallels the SNAI policy and is perhaps best described as an ideological movement with very practical ambitions to influence the direction of policy. Its origins lie with the publication in 2019, by Antonio De Rossi of a book entitled ‘Riabitare l’Italia ‘. The association (with the same name) has produced a manifesto which points to the role of globalisation and metropolitan economic growth models as presiding over the decline and neglect of the inner areas, despite their potential as custodians of cultural and environmental capital, and emerging opportunities for the circular economy and distributed (non-agglomerated) economic activity. It is notable that several of the authors of the manifesto have been key figures in developing and delivering the SNAI. The Riabitare ltalia web pages provide a very accessible channel of communication about ongoing activities, documents, and events.

ii) Spain: Many a slip twixt cup and lip…

Negative population change and demographic ageing are not localised features in Spain, they affect almost two-thirds of municipalities, and half of these saw a decrease of more than 10% between 2001 and 2018. However, the problem is most severe in small, remote municipalities, usually situated in the interior and in mountainous areas, which have been described as “places of no relevance” (Collantes and Pinilla, 2019). Population growth has been concentrated in cities, and in coastal areas with tourism potential.

As in Scotland, rural demographic issues are strongly in the public consciousness, as the common phrase “empty Spain” testifies. Rural depopulation has been the subject of repeated policy initiatives over several decades. Pinilla and Sáez express their frustration at the relative weakness of implementation, by likening the legislative process to the curse of Sisyphus, repeatedly pushing a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom (Pinilla and Sáez 2021). Strategies, however well-conceived, are only as good as the operational capability to implement them.

The governance and policy landscape in Spain is complex, involving both national and devolved regional powers. A good starting point is the “National Strategy against the Demographic Challenge” of 2017 (Ministerio de Politica Territorial y Funcion Pública 2020), which sets goals and responsibilities for regional governments in a way which could be described as “demographic proofing”. Clearly the operational approach is very different from the previous Italian example, being more ‘arms-length’. It seems reasonable to assume that this is a direct consequence of the federal governance structure, practical implementation being the responsibility of the autonomous regions, rather than central government.

The underpinning principle upon which the 2017 strategy is founded is to “guarantee equal opportunities and free exercise of citizenship rights throughout the territory”. This includes an equal right to basic services, well-being and sustainability, regardless of geographic location (including rural, remote and mountain areas) or population trend. This responsibility is placed upon all central government departments, and upon the autonomous regional administrations.

Although there are many examples of community and third sector initiatives to address rural depopulation (see for instance the Depopulated Spain website), the weak link in the Spanish policy response, according to Pinilla and Sáez, is at the level of the Autonomous Regions (Pinila and Sáez 2021). It seems that, amongst other things, political cycles and coalition administrations have hampered effective implementation. Indeed, they argue that only two regions, Aragón and Castilla y León, have developed specific plans to deal with rural depopulation.

In Aragón the ‘Integral Plan for Demographic and Population Policy’ (2000) appears to have been both advanced in its conception and supported by a well-considered administrative arrangement. However, due to a lack of political accountability “All of this rich potential in terms of contents and governance, innovative on both a regional and national level in Spain… went to waste… only a few isolated measures have been developed lacking in any kind of strategic planning and failing to comply with all of the procedures required to give them continuity” Since then, two further plans (2017 and 2021) have been articulated but have again produced very little in terms of practical implementation. A similar story seems to have occurred in Castilla y León. (Pinila and Sáez 2021).

The Spanish experience may perhaps be summed up as promising in principle, but disappointing in practice. The ‘demographic proofing’ concept is winsome as a principle, but extremely challenging in implementation. In comparison with the Italian SNAI programme the Madrid Government’s National Strategy is incomparably less ‘resource hungry’, but without intense commitment at the regional level its achievements appear modest. It is worth considering to what extent the governance arrangements are responsible for this, or whether the intrinsically passive nature of ‘proofing’ approaches is also pertinent.

iii) Germany: Too many cooks?

With one of the lowest (sub-replacement) birth rates on the continent, a rapidly ageing population, and strong inflows of migrants, Germany faces complex demographic challenges. These are compounded by historic geographic inequalities, particularly between the more rural parts of the “new lӓnder” in the East, and the globalised cities in the West. However, in recent years there has been increasing concern about trends in rural parts of the former West Germany.

As in Spain, the federal governance structure of Germany conditions the policy process; the national government sets an agenda and structures for regional governments to follow. Demographic change has been a matter of concern for the Federal Government for at least three decades. Ten thematic working groups[14], involving representatives of all levels of governance, from Federal to local, academics and the third sector, contributed to a national strategy “Every age counts”, first published in 2012, and revised in 2015. The strategy has four stated goals;

a. to increase economic growth potential

b. to promote social and societal cohesion

c. to promote the equality of living conditions in the regions

d. to ensure solid finances - for the state's ability to act and the reliability of the social security system

The strategy is supported by a substantial volume of analytical work, including a web-based information portal, known as the Demographic Radar.

During the past four years the demographic strategy has become a key component in a wider national strategy to address geographic inequalities. In July 2018 the Federal government established a Commission on Equal Living Conditions, tasked with exploring geographic inequalities across Germany. In a press release the close links between economic and demographic trends (i.e. complex shrinking), and the consequences of widening disparities for social cohesion were emphasised[15]. The work of the Commission was supported by a comprehensive statistical analysis, published in the form of an Atlas of Germany. Just one year after the establishment of the Commission three departments of the Federal Government jointly published a strategy “Our Plan for Germany – Equal living conditions everywhere” (BMIBH et al., 2019). Significantly, the headline refers to living conditions, rather than growth.

The strategy identifies 12 priorities:

i. Targeted support for structurally weak regions throughout Germany

ii. bring jobs to structurally weak regions

iii. Expand broadband and mobile communications nationwide

iv. Improve mobility and transport infrastructure in the area

v. Strengthen villages and rural areas

vi. Promote urban development and social housing

vii. Finding a fair solution for old municipal debts

viii. Strengthen engagement and volunteering

ix. Ensuring quality and participation in child day care

x. Realize accessibility in the area

xi. Encourage the cooperation of the citizens in the municipalities

xii. Set equal living conditions as a guideline

So much for ‘the view from Berlin’ – but it is also important to understand the policy situation at regional and local level. Such a ‘bottom-up’ perspective has been provided by one of the ESPON ESCAPE case studies, carried out by Dax, Machold, and Bauchinger (2020) in the county of Mansfeld-Südharz in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. Their report conveys a strong impression of a complex and cluttered governance and policy landscape. In terms of actors, state, county and municipal administrations are accompanied by a substantial population of third sector organisations. European Cohesion, Rural Development, Social Fund and LEADER/CLLD funding/activities jostle with Federal, State and Municipality programmes and projects, together with the efforts of voluntary and community groups. Further voices are added to the discourse by researchers at several institutes based within the state. This complexity probably accounts for the local practitioner interviewees’ level of scepticism about policy effectiveness, the degree of ‘project fatigue’ induced by short-termism and frequent policy ‘reforms’, and push-back against unnecessary top-down administrative complexity.

In terms of spatial targeting, the picture is no less complex or confusing. Each European funding source has different arrangements for geographical allocation of support. As an example, the Cohesion Fund has redesignated Mansfeld-Südharz from a “Less Developed” to a “Transition” region on the basis of its changing GDP per capita. LEADER and CLLD areas are each delimited individually, on the basis of a specific statistical case made by the Local Action Group, in their application for funding. Federal and State policies use various different spatial targeting criteria in their programmes. Municipalities cooperate with each other in various initiatives, using what Dax et al. term “variable geometries”. The third sector carry out their activities within ad hoc territories for their own pragmatic reasons. The end result is a complex hierarchy of overlapping policy spaces very different from the simpler world of ‘zonal approaches’ such as the Italian SNAI.

The insight gained from this window on repopulation policy in Germany relates to the downside of complexity. This is, of course, a risk in all EU Member States, especially those with more developed policy traditions which pre-date accession. Federal governance arrangements seem to increase the danger of duplication between national, regional and local strategies and initiatives.

iv) France: Restoring the promise of the Republic…

As in Germany, French rural policy is a complex hybrid of European and national instruments. The example presented here is part of a recent national strategy, known as the Rural Agenda. Launched by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe in September 2019, the Agenda has inevitably been to some extent overtaken by the unexpected challenges raised by COVID-19.

Although not explicitly a repopulation policy the introduction to the Ministry for Territorial Cohesion’s press release makes it very clear that the underlying goal is to mitigate and adapt to rural depopulation:

Rural areas, in all their diversity, are home to a third of the French population. These are fertile spaces for innovation, where many citizens, professionals and elected officials participate in the transformation of their territory. Often far from major urban centres and catchment areas, rural people invent solutions to improve their daily lives and their activities. A dynamism which, added to the quality of life, attracts the French: 81% of them consider that living in the countryside represents the ideal life!” (Ministére de la Transition écologique et de la Cohésion des territoires 2019)

The quote also emphasises rural territorial potentials, and the role played by endogenous human and social capital in discovering smart responses to shrinking. Underpinning this ambition is an equal right to live and to receive basic services in all rural areas. Thus, Philippe stated, “this plan aims to allow everyone to live and work where they reside, including in the countryside.” (Ibid)

The 2019 Rural Agenda included:

i. a scheme to cut the costs associated with living in the countryside for young people,

ii. measures to revitalise small towns – defined as those with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants - (business support, basic services, cultural initiatives, housing renovation),

iii. support for small businesses (particularly hospitality) in municipalities with fewer than 3,500 inhabitants,

iv. support for improved access to mobile data,

v. expanding distance learning in higher education,

vi. digital service hubs (France service houses) in each canton,

vii. recruitment of additional general practice doctors, and rural internships,

viii. rural internships/work experience for third year college students,

ix. integration assistance for migrants to Rural Revitalisation Zones (ZRR – see below) with the objective of increasing their population from 28,000 to 40,000 over a 5-year period,

x. To establish 200 ‘Micro-Folies’ – digital cultural attractions or events in rural areas.

The mention of ZRRs -Rural Revitalisation Zones is clearly of interest in the context of this report. These have been territorial designations in France since the 1990s. The criteria were population density and average household income. The principal benefit associated with ZRR status was tax relief for entrepreneurs. However, their future is in doubt. The French government has commissioned analysis for revised designation criteria. We are not aware of the outcome.

One of the detailed analyses which followed the Rural Agenda (Berlioux 2020) focused specifically on the role of young people in depopulating rural areas. The full title of this report was “Future paths, mission orientation and equal opportunities in France’s rural areas and small towns; Restoring the promise of the Republic”. An intensive series of consultation events and a survey of young people confirmed both an age-selective ‘brain drain’ process affecting remote rural areas, but also a psychological impact among the young people who chose not to migrate; a crisis of confidence, low morale and depressed ambition. The distinctive and innovative characteristic of Berlioux’s ‘mission’ is this focus upon the psychological effects of selective out-migration upon the young people who chose to remain. Twenty-five specific recommendations aim to increase awareness of the issue, improve networking, and enhance mobility for young people in rural areas.

The French example again illustrates the shifting policy ‘zeitgeist’, away from precise demarcation of zones, and the neo-liberal quest for SME-led economic growth, towards a recognition of the importance of subjective motives for migrating (or remaining), and an emphasis on spatial justice and citizens’ rights.

v) Canada: The Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot

Here we focus on the spatially targeted Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot (RNIP) which was launched in 2019 by the Canadian Federal Government in collaboration with communities in Northern and Western Canada. It has recently been extended to August 2024. RNIP is an ‘economic migration stream’ which aims to attract and retain newcomers to Canada’s rural and northern communities and to improve communication and collaboration between the Federal Government, local communities and local economic development organisations.

The rationale for the initiative was to address the consequences of ageing and declining populations which have resulted in labour shortages and increasing costs of public services in small towns and remote and rural areas. The objectives of the pilot are to support the economic development of designated local communities, ‘…test an innovative approach to immigration selection, and improve the retention of newcomers by fostering a welcoming community’. A distinctive feature of the Pilot is the pairing of a ‘newcomer’ with a member of the participating community who acts as a mentor (Hagar 2021). In addition, each community is assigned a Dedicated Service Channel Officer at Immigration, Refugees, Citizenship Canada (IRCC 2022) to respond to queries about the programme.

RNIP was launched following a discussion between the National Rural Caucus and the Federal Government -Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Collaboration between the Federal and Provincial Governments with regard to attracting immigrants beyond the three major centres of attraction – Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal- has been ongoing (Hagar 2021; Wiginton 2013). RNIP gives “the participating communities greater autonomy in deciding their immigration and economic futures by enabling them to select desired newcomers” (Hagar, 2021, p6). Eleven communities in Western Canada and Ontario were chosen to participate in RNIP, based on one of two criteria: (i) They had to have a population of 50,000 or less and located at least 75 km from the centre of a Census Metropolitan Area ; (ii) They had to have a population of 200,000 and considered remote from other larger cities. Each participating community has its own website ( Network 2022).

RNIP is based on collaboration between the federal government, local communities and local economic development organisations. The latter have an important role in administrating the programmes in the communities and establishing and sustaining partnerships to ensure that settlement and retention goals are met. To be accepted on the RNIP applicants must meet both federal government and community specific requirements. The Federal Government criteria are work experience, educational requirements, settlement funds and intention to reside in the pilot community. These criteria must be met before applicants look for employment in one of the participating communities (see More information - Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot). The community specific criteria vary across communities and include factors such as age, family ties to the community, previous work experience, spouse’s employment, etc (Hagar 2021). When an applicant meets the Federal criteria, they can start looking for employment in a community. Once they have a permanent job offer, they must secure a community recommendation which enables the applicant and family members to move to the participating community.

A very early evaluation of the pilot participating communities involving interviews with individuals from the public and not for profit sectors was conducted in May and July 2020 . The report identified a number of issues briefly outlined below (Hagar 2021).

(i) COVID19: The impact of COVID19 and its aftermath had impacted on the pilot with regard to recruiting participants and employers and engaging more effectively with the local residents.

(ii) Multilevel Governance: In order to facilitate innovation, the Federal Government did not wish to dictate the community processes that should be put in place. Whilst this was welcomed, the set-up phase involved a steep learning curve for the communities who had to operate under the Federal immigration processes. Additionally, lack of communication and information about issues such as community boundaries and length of pilot at the outset resulted in some confusion. The issue of ‘community boundaries’ did not take into account for example that a number of organisations (e.g., employers, service providers, etc) in the participating communities had regional remits. The five pilot communities selected in Northern Ontario served as regional hubs which damaged relationships with employers not located within the designated boundaries. There were also concerns that RNIP was leading to population drift away from smaller surrounding communities. Some of these issues have recently been addressed. For example, the geographical boundaries of some participating communities have been expanded, allowing more employers to participate and fill local labour needs. Community partners have been assisted to provide support for candidates and employers (IRRC 2022).

(iii) Community Capacity: Early collaboration between the pilot administrators and local service providers and employers was seen as the key to success, in promoting the pilot and attracting applicants. From what is available it is difficult to get a sense of who the ‘community’ is in the pilot communities. There appeared to be no funding for the administration of the pilots at grassroots community level. The ‘community’ involved in each of the pilot areas comprised of individuals from the pubic and not for profit sectors (e.g., provincial and municipal governments, organisation working with immigrants, post-secondary education institutions, chambers of commerce, etc). Each pilot ‘community’ also employed one to three staff members who were appointed to work on the pilots with volunteers and in some cases short-term interns. Against this background, lack of wider community capacity to undertake the work required and to engage effectively with local employers was an issue.

(iv) Roles and Responsibilities: More clarity was needed on the roles and responsibilities of community organisations (such as local community settlement services) external to the administering organisation. There was also a lack of understanding of what services various organisations offered that were relevant to the programme. Whilst some organisations felt that they had input into the community specific recommendations criteria, others felt excluded.

(v) Welcoming Communities: The importance of giving equal weight to both economic integration and retention was identified as critical. The public was not aware of RNIP. COVID may have been one of the factors for this as it made local engagement and collaboration more difficult. There was also a need to be sensitive to job losses in the communities because of COVID. Racist attitudes towards indigenous communities and challenging indigenous-newcomer relations were issues identified in one of the pilot communities. Some indigenous communities also had concerns about international workers. The issue of the relationship of indigenous communities and their continuing struggle to assert their rights in the context of evolving immigration policies is rarely discussed in the Canadian immigration literature (Bauder and Green 2022).

The Pilot is at an early stage to assess its success or otherwise. A monitoring framework for evaluating the pilots, over different time scales was not available. However, it did raise 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.

4.2.4 Learning points for Scotland

In conclusion some key learning points which seem to apply to the Scottish context may be reiterated:

1. Applying international learning: When considering potential lessons for Scotland’s policy, it is essential to take account of differences in governance arrangements and welfare system context.

2. Approaches to spatial targeting: The five examples cited above exhibit a range of approaches to spatial targeting. The Italian SNAI programme is a classic example of a mainly quantitative approach, combining systematic analysis of indicators with expert field investigations. It is significant that the more recent Riabitare l’Italia initiative, has not seen zonal delimitation as a necessity. Similarly, in France there seems to have been a shift away from objective delimitation of ZRR zones. Hard boundaries are perhaps less appropriate in the context of approaches which address less tangible social issues, well-being, and spatial justice. Coordinated targeting of local areas is more difficult in federal governance contexts, such as Spain or Germany, where national strategies do not extend to the selection of local areas for intervention, or to operational implementation, resorting instead to specifying generic types of areas or processes, and recommending or requiring adjustments to a range of relevant policies at the autonomous region or state level. However, in the Canadian context collaboration between the federal and provincial governments with regard to attracting migrants in remote and rural regions is not new (Hagar, 2021; IRCC 2022); Wiginton, 2013). RNIP reflects a further development of the spatially focused trends in Canadian immigration policymaking specifically addressing local rural labour shortages in collaboration with local communities. In the Scottish contest the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act (2015) provides a possible opportunity for exploring local community engagement in addressing population change.

3. The importance of coherence: The German example illustrated very clearly a danger associated with zonal approaches to repopulation policy, and indeed to local development initiatives generally. Western European countries – and Scotland is no exception – tend to have very complex and cluttered local policy landscapes. It behoves national, regional and local policy stakeholders to consider very carefully whether introducing yet another layer of intervention will deliver additional benefit. Interaction between policies is not always positive. In recognition that ‘integration’ of policy is rarely practicable the EU discourse refers to the need (at least) for ‘coherence’, both horizontally, breaking down sectoral silos, and vertically, between different levels of governance. This is a very important issue to consider before introducing zonal repopulation policies in Scotland.

4. ‘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.

5. Shifting policy goals: All of the European examples indicate a reorientation of policy away from a simple mitigation response to shrinking (maintaining or increasing population numbers), in favour of a focus upon well-being, and social/spatial justice, emphasising citizens’ rights to basic services wherever they wish to reside. There is a subtle difference between this and adaptation, or ‘smart shrinking’, and it is certainly compatible with the tone of the population strategy, and the National Outcomes, as defined by the Performance Framework.

6. Responses to ageing should not be neglected: Indeed age-group specific interventions, as in the French example, can address (indirectly) the balance of migration whilst delivering psychological benefits and enhanced well-being.

7. Local community involvement in policy design is crucial: Intensive consultation, or better still, involvement in decision making ensures effective tailoring of interventions, and encourages ‘buy in’ and commitment. The Italian SNAI experience is an excellent illustration. The Canadian example shows difficulties in putting this into practice, and Germany demonstrates the potential for overkill. The relatively limited powers of local authorities in Scotland mean that careful consideration of the practicalities of implementation would be required.

To conclude, tackling Scotland’s population concerns is clearly an important policy issue. Changes in individual practices, 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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