Rural Planning Policy to 2050: research findings

Findings from research commissioned to inform preparation of the next version of Scotland’s National Planning Framework, NPF4.

4 A Picture of Rural Scotland

4.1 Introduction

Purpose of the Chapter

In this chapter, we review a range of typologies that are used to describe rural Scotland. These typologies distinguish between different types of rural area, providing an evidence base for developing policies and targeting policy measures to address the particular needs and challenges of those different types of area.

As Hopkins and Copus have observed:

“Unlike sectoral (agricultural) rural development policy – which targets beneficiaries on the basis that they are farmers, or other primary producers, in a “spatially-blind” way, place-based approaches seek to address the needs of specific rural areas in a holistic way, with beneficiaries identified according to their location. Thus a key precondition for place based rural policies is a definition of rural area, and some understanding of rural diversity, perhaps captured by some kind of typology.”[27]

The typologies available for rural Scotland have been developed in different contexts, and for different purposes, and each paints a different picture as a result. Although there are commonalities between them, they can differ in scale, in the geographical social and economic characteristics they focus upon and in the data upon which they draw.

Scottish Planning Policy currently distinguishes between three main types of rural area[28]: pressurised rural areas that are easily accessible from Scotland’s cities and main towns; remote and fragile rural and island areas lying outwith defined small towns, and; intermediate rural areas, in terms of their accessibility and degree of pressure for development. However, since SPP was published in 2014, there have been significant developments in the classification of rural areas and our purpose in this chapter is to review these developments and to set them in context in order to inform the preparation of NPF4.

A Note on Some Technical Terms

We use a number of technical terms in the chapter.

Typology (and classification)

Typology is “the study or systematic classification of types that have characteristics or traits in common …. [in order to enable] meaningful analysis and comparison”[29].

Typologies of rural areas operate at different geographical levels – some are quite localised and deal with small areas, while others relate to much larger regions. In describing the different typologies, we will refer to the following statistical units (listed here in order of size from smallest to largest):

Output Areas

The smallest areas used for census data in the UK. For the 2011 census, Scotland was divided into 46,351 OAs, which are mostly an aggregation of a small number of neighbouring postcode areas.

Data Zones

DZs are the core geography used for the dissemination of small area statistics in Scotland. They are formed of groups of census OAs, with each DZ having 500-1,000 household residents. In 2011, Scotland was divided into 6,976 DZs (compared with 6,505 DZs in 2001).

Local Administrative Unit 2 (LAU 2)

There are currently four levels of EU statistical unit: LAU 1 (the lowest), NUTS 3, NUTS 2 and NUTS 1 (the highest). The LAU 2 level is no longer used, but it formed the basis of some typologies created before 2018. In a number of countries, LAU 2 units represent municipalities; in Scotland, they were based on the single-member wards which were in operation until 2007.

Nomenclature of Units for Territorial Statistics 3 (NUTS 3)

Scotland is a single NUTS 1 region, which is subdivided into four NUTS 2 regions and 23 NUTS 3 regions. The Scottish NUTS 3 regions correspond with individual Local Authority areas, or with groupings or subdivisions of Local Authority areas.

Territorial Level 3 (TL 3)

The OECD has provided a regional typology that is based on territorial levels that mirror the EU NUTS units (see above). There are 133 TL 3 regions in the UK, and the Scottish TL 3 regions correspond with individual Local Authority areas, or with groupings or subdivisions of Local Authority areas.

Territorial Typologies

4.2 Rural Typologies in the rest of the UK, the EU and OECD countries

The classification of regions according to their ‘territorial type’ has provided “an analytical and descriptive lens on these types of territories”[30] in support of the delivery of EU cohesion policy. This policy aims to promote more balanced development across the EU and to reduce disparities between regions. The 2007 Lisbon Treaty states that “particular attention shall be paid to rural areas, areas affected by industrial transition, and regions which suffer from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps such as the northernmost regions with very low population density and island, cross-border and mountain regions”. Since 2007, the policy debate has moved beyond a focus on ‘natural handicaps’ to identifying and strengthening the development potential of such regions[31].

Of all the typologies developed in this context, those concerning ‘mountain regions’, ‘island regions’ and ‘sparsely-populated regions’ are the most relevant to Scotland. These three types of region have been mapped across the EU at NUTS 3 level.

Most typologies of mountain areas are based primarily on data for altitude and slope[32]. The EU-wide, NUTS 3 scale typology[33] identifies mountain regions on the basis of the percentage of the region’s surface that is covered by mountain areas and/or the percentage of the regional population that lives in mountain areas. In the EU typology, four Scottish NUTS 3 regions are classified as mountain regions: ‘Caithness & Sutherland and Ross & Cromarty’; ‘Lochaber, Skye & Lochalsh, Arran & Cumbrae and Argyll & Bute’; ‘Inverness & Nairn and Moray, Badenoch & Strathspey’, and; ‘Perth & Kinross and Stirling’.

The EU defines ‘island regions’ as NUTS 3 regions entirely covered by islands[34]. Islands are defined as territories with a minimum surface of 1 km², a minimum distance between the island and the mainland of 1 km, a resident population of more than 50 inhabitants and no fixed link (e.g. a bridge or tunnel) between the island and the mainland. Island regions are then further classified on the basis of the population of the major island in the region. The Scottish NUTS 3 regions of Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles), Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands are categorised as island regions.

Sparsely-populated areas were first defined when Sweden, Finland and Austria joined the EU in the 1990s[35]. At EU level, these regions are defined as those with a population density below a certain threshold (at NUTS 3 level, the threshold is less than 12.5 inhabitants per km²)[36]. On this basis, the Scottish NUTS 3 regions of Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles), Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, ‘Caithness & Sutherland and Ross & Cromarty’ and ‘Lochaber, Skye & Lochalsh, Arran & Cumbrae and Argyll & Bute’ are categorised as sparsely-populated regions.

A different typology of sparsely-populated areas has since been developed for Scotland based on the concept of ‘population potential’ rather than population density (see Section 5.3 below).

From Territorial Type to Function: Urban Rural Typologies

Classifying regions by their territorial type has its advantages[37]. Such regions face common challenges and have similar needs deriving from their geographical specificities – challenges of connectivity and access to services, for example. Territorial typologies serve to guide the planning and delivery of development interventions at EU level.

However, these typologies also have their drawbacks[38]. They treat all areas within a class as being the same, when in reality there are significant differences between them. They also represent individual regions as internally homogenous, when they can be internally diverse.

It has been argued that the typology approach is not, in many cases, the right starting point in developing policies and that a ‘functional approach’ is often more appropriate[39]. Functional approaches move beyond consideration of a single variable, such as topography or population density, to consider the interaction of a number of variables and the functional links between one area and another. Functional typologies are perhaps more appropriate to the development of policies and measures that consider not just the challenges faced in different areas, but also their development assets and potential[40].

A common form of functional typology is the ‘urban rural typology’, examples of which are often based on factors of population and access. Urban rural typologies are the most common kind of classification dealing with rural areas[41]. They represent a tradition of defining rural areas as “not urban”[42]. However, while some examples do still focus simply on delineating rural from urban areas (e.g. by setting a minimum population density for urban areas), others now seek to capture more of the complexity of rural-urban settings and interactions[43]. They do this be making use of data on accessibility, commuting patterns, employment and other economic characteristics, and on the presence of urban infrastructure, land use or facilities[44]. This enables the identification of rural areas that are functionally connected to urban centres, as a part of a wider ‘urban region’, and that face different policy challenges from rural areas that are more distant from urban settlements[45]. Such enhanced urban rural classifications are important in the present context because access to urban areas is known to be a major factor in the socio-economic performance and development of rural areas and small towns[46].

The OECD Regional Typology

This typology was first developed in the 1990s and extended in 2009[47]. It defines TL3 regions as ‘predominantly urban’, ‘intermediate’ or ‘predominantly rural’ on the basis of population density[48].

For Europe, North America and Japan, the typology has been extended by adding an accessibility dimension. This involves further subdividing ‘intermediate’ and ‘predominantly rural’ regions into those lying within a ‘Functional Urban Area’, those ‘close to a city’ and those that are ‘remote’. Accessibility is measured with reference to the road network.

Rural territories within Functional Urban Areas fall within the catchment of an urban settlement, and their development is intimately linked to that urban centre. Rural areas close to cities often enjoy a good industrial mix and more resilient local economies. Regions where at least half of the population lives an hour or more from cities are classified as ‘remote’. In such regions, primary production often plays an important role in the economy.

The EU Urban Rural Typology

The EU’s urban rural typology is based on the OECD Regional Typology[49]. Both typologies categorise regions on the basis of population density and population size. They differ in certain details of method, and in that the OECD typology uses TL3 regions and EU typology uses NUTS 3 regions (while these regional units are of similar scale, they do not coincide in all EU countries).

The EU typology first distinguishes rural from urban areas on the basis of population density and size. The typology then sorts NUTS 3 regions into the three categories of ‘predominantly urban’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘predominantly rural’, on the basis of the share of the population living in rural areas and the size of any urban centres in the region.

The EU typology does not include an accessibility dimension, but this can be added to it to create a more complex typology[50]. Adding this accessibility dimension – based on drive time to urban centres – creates five categories of region: predominantly urban regions; intermediate regions, close to a city; intermediate, remote regions; predominantly rural regions, close to a city, and; predominantly rural, remote regions.

National-level Classifications

Urban rural classifications have been developed at national level by various countries. In these, a population threshold is usually used to distinguish rural and urban areas, although the level at which the threshold is set varies[51]. In Scotland, for example, the urban/rural threshold is 3,000, while in Northern Ireland it is 5,000 and in England and Wales it is 10,000.

Population density is also a consideration in some national typologies[52]. Density measures are used to define settlements and, again, the threshold varies from country to country.

Other measures that are used in this context include land use or urban infrastructure and services, the relative level of primary sector or land-based employment, commuting patterns or legal status (i.e. where statutes or other regulations designate particular settlements as cities or towns)[53].

Taking such additional factors into account and working at the level of ‘small areas’ rather than large regions, makes it possible for urban rural typologies to identify rural areas with particular economic links to urban settlements[54].

A Place-based Understanding of Rural Areas

Some kinds of urban rural classification are more suitable than others for use in the development and implementation of place-based policies. In order to address the specific challenges and capitalise on the specific opportunities of a place, it is necessary to identify its particular development patterns and links. This requires an analysis “at the scale of functional geographies” which are more local than the NUTS 3 regions used by some urban rural typologies[55]. The OECD has observed that some existing definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ are problematic from a place-based policy point of view[56].

As well as working at a less-than-regional scale, place-based approaches require typologies that draw on a wider range of data, including information on ‘quality of life’[57] and on the specific territorial assets, challenges and socio-economic dynamics of different areas[58].

Research recently undertaken by Sarah Skerratt on behalf of the Prince’s Countryside Fund has found that:

“People’s experiences of ‘remote’ and ‘very remote’ rural UK show a layering of geographical and personal factors. This means that map-based labels of remoteness are important but limited, because they hide individual experiences.”[59]

“Typologies are necessary and useful for defining and targeting the rural population for specific policy and strategy measures. However … typologies do not define reality, but show only certain aspects of reality …. [and it is therefore useful to know] the extent to which physical typologies map onto lived experience.”[60]

Hopkins and Copus have argued that there are:

“benefits which may be derived from a different sort of territorial typology, which instead of classifying areas according to their degree of rurality, or according to their overall socio-economic performance, seeks to capture differences in the ensemble of territorial assets which are likely to determine the nature of local development processes, and their relative successfulness.”[61]

We will return to the question of the suitability of different typologies with respect to a place-based approach to policy in section 4.5 below. First, we will review the main typologies that have been developed for rural Scotland.

4.3 Population and Access Models in Scotland

A number of different typologies have been developed for Scotland that are primarily based on the factors of population and access. These are the rural typology presented in Scottish Planning Policy, the Scottish Government’s Urban Rural Classification and the Sparsely Populated Areas recently identified by the James Hutton Institute.

Scottish Planning Policy

Scottish Planning Policy (2014) recognises that the “character of rural and island areas and the challenges they face vary greatly across the country” and it distinguishes between three main categories of rural area[62]:

  • pressurised rural areas that are easily accessible from Scotland’s cities and main towns;
  • remote and fragile rural and island areas lying outwith defined small towns;
  • intermediate rural areas, in terms of their accessibility and degree of pressure for development.

This echoes the OECD Regional Typology and the EU Urban Rural Typology, both of which categorise regions as being ‘predominantly urban’, ‘intermediate’ or ‘predominantly rural’ and both of which consider both population and access information (see section 4.2 above). It also mirrors the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification (below), which divides rural Scotland into the three classes of Accessible, Remote and Very Remote.

The SPP rural types are used explicitly in some Local Development Plans (LDP) as a basis for varying policy. For example, policies within the Aberdeenshire LDP are less permissive for pressurised rural areas than for intermediate areas. The Dumfries & Galloway LDP has more permissive policies for remote rural areas. The Western Isles LDP also identifies Remote Areas for particular attention.

Use of the SPP rural typology is absent from or less explicit in many LDPs, although that does not mean that it has not informed the development of policies within the LDP. For example, LDPs for the Local Authority areas containing or close to cities and major towns tend to refer to ‘countryside’, ‘countryside around towns’, ‘hinterland’, ‘green belt’ and ‘coastal zones’ or ‘undeveloped coast’ instead of the SPP rural types. The lack of explicit reference to the SPP types may be due to the perception that all or most of the rural areas covered by an LDP fall within a single SPP type, such as ‘pressurised rural’.

Some of these LDPs identify specific types of rural area to guide the application of policies, such as ‘Rural Investment Areas’ (North Lanarkshire), ‘Rural Villages area’ (Stirling), ‘Rural Protection area’ and ‘Rural Diversification area’ (East Ayrshire), ‘Rural Service Centres’ and ‘Rural Settlement Units’ (Angus) and ‘Investment Area’ (South Ayrshire).

The LDP for Argyll & Bute identifies ‘Key Rural Settlements’, ‘Villages and Minor Settlements’, ‘Countryside Zone’, ‘Rural Opportunity Areas’, ‘Very Sensitive Countryside’ and ‘Greenbelt’, with varying policies on the opportunities for and scales of development in these areas. The Scottish Borders LDP has ‘Dispersed Rural Communities’ and ‘Countryside’, and aims to prevent the build up of development around towns and promote development in some other areas. The Highland LDP distinguishes between ‘hinterland’ and ‘wider countryside’, with high levels of protection given to the ‘hinterland’; this LDP also makes use of the ‘fragile areas’ index developed by Highlands & Islands Enterprise (see below).

The island Local Authorities have a range of policies specific to their island context. The Orkney LDP distinguishes between ‘Mainland and linked Isles Countryside’ and ‘non linked-Isles Countryside’, with a greater degree of development control being placed on the former than on the latter. The Shetland LDP has ‘Open countryside’ and ‘uninhabited islands’ and seeks to resist development on uninhabited islands. The Western Isles LDP distinguishes between ‘Rural Settlements’, areas ‘outwith settlements’, remote areas’, ‘Marine and Shore Environment’ and ‘offshore islands’.

Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification

The Urban Rural Classification is the Scottish Government’s main tool for identifying and classifying rural areas[63]. It provides a standard definition of rural areas and is used in a number of different contexts.

There are four nested versions of the Urban Rural Classification, known as the 2-fold, 3-fold, 6-fold and 8-fold versions. In creating the Classification, settlements were defined as groupings of high density postcodes and then different versions of the typology were created as follows:

The 2-fold version draws a simple distinction between Urban and Rural Areas, on the basis of the population size of settlements. Rural Areas are those areas with a population of fewer than 3,000 people.

The 3-fold, 6-fold and 8-fold versions of the Classification distinguish between different areas on the basis of the population size of settlements and of accessibility.

Figure 1: Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification, 8-fold version

Figure 1: Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification, 8-fold version. Source:

Accessibility is calculated here in terms of ‘drive times’ from the centres of urban areas (settlements with a population of 10,000 or more).

The 3-fold version distinguishes between Accessible Rural Areas, Remote Rural Areas and the Rest of Scotland, where the latter includes all towns (population 3,000-9,999) and urban areas (population 10,000 and above). This version of the Classification is primarily used in the agricultural, fisheries and rural sectors and its purpose is to differentiate between Accessible and Remote Rural Areas.

The 6-fold version is the most widely used version of the Classification. It distinguishes between two categories of urban (‘Large’, ‘Other’) and two categories of town and of rural (‘Accessible’, ‘Remote’). Accessible areas are those within a 30 minute drive time from an Urban Area, and Remote areas are those that are more than 30 minutes away.

The 8-fold classification is similar to the 6-fold, but has the additional category of ‘Very Remote’ for both Small Towns and Rural Areas. The primary purpose of the 8-fold classification is to assist in allocating funding to Very Remote Areas, although it is used for other purposes as well. In the 8-fold version, Accessible areas are those within a 30 minute drive time from a settlement with a population of 10,000 or more, Remote areas have a drive time of between 30 and 60 minutes and Very Remote areas are more than a 60 minute drive time from a settlement with a population of 10,000 or more.

Sparsely Populated Areas (SPAs) in Scotland

As discussed in Section 4.2 above, the European Commission has identified ‘sparsely-populated’ regions. The James Hutton Institute has developed an alternative map of Sparsely Populated Areas (SPAs) for Scotland[64] on behalf of the Scottish Government, in order to support research into the land use, economic and environmental implications of demographic change.

Figure 2: Sparsely Populated Areas in Scotland

Figure 2: Sparsely Populated Areas in Scotland. The coloured areas represent the six sub-regions of the SPA. Image reproduced courtesy of the James Hutton Institute. Source: Hopkins & Copus 2018e, p.5.

Whereas the EU sparsely-populated regions are based on population density, the James Hutton Institute’s work is based on the alternative concept of ‘population potential, which is the number of people living within a certain distance of a given place[65]. This approach “takes account of both low density … and access to adjacent populations. Arguably this better represents the real economic and social implications of sparsity …”[66]. Because it considers access, the ‘population potential’ approach moves us away from seeing ‘sparsely-populated’ as a simple geographical type and towards seeing it as a more functionally-based definition of an area.

So, like the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification, the Scottish SPAs are identified using data on both population and accessibility. However, there are several key differences between the two typologies. Firstly, where the Urban Rural Classification separates rural areas from towns, the SPA includes both rural areas and small towns. Secondly, where the Urban Rural Classification measures accessibility relative to urban areas, the SPA measures accessibility relative to the numbers of people who can be reached (regardless of whether they live in rural areas, towns or urban areas).

The Scottish SPAs were identified using 2011 Census data on the location of people, combined with data on road and ferry networks and average road speeds. A calculation was made of the number of people within 30 minutes travel from each of the 13,814 Census Output Areas in rural areas and small towns in Scotland.

The Scottish SPAs include all those rural areas and small towns where less than 10,000 people can be reached within 30 minutes travel using roads and ferries (the SPAs are therefore areas without access to a population equivalent in size to an urban area, as defined in the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification.) Almost half of the land area of Scotland (48.7%) has been classified as falling within an SPA. This large area is home to 2.6% of the population.

The rural/small town area with the greatest ‘population potential’ is in North Lanarkshire, where 1,787,883 people can be reached within 30 minutes travel. At the other end of the scale, nine areas – associated with small islands in Orkney, Shetland and Argyll & Bute – have a population potential of less than 100 people within 30 minutes travel.

4.4 Socio-economic Models in Scotland

In 2008, the OECD observed that Scotland’s Urban Rural Classification was not capable of reflecting differences in the socio-economic dynamics which may originate within rural areas, “because it places such an emphasis upon accessibility (and by implication centre-periphery growth processes)”[67]. Since that time, a number of other typologies and indices have been developed that seek to identify the varying social and economic characteristics of Scotland’s rural areas.

RESAS Classification of the Rural Economy

This classification was recently produced by RESAS – the Scottish Government Rural & Environment Science & Analytical Services – as an alternative to the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification[68]. It classifies Local Authority areas by their degree of rurality, in order to support the analysis of economic data which is frequently only available at Local Authority level.

The RESAS classification replaces the Randall definition of Rural Scottish Local Authorities, which was based solely on population density. The RESAS classification follows research that suggests that a definition of rurality cannot be based on population density and distance to urban settlement alone, and it takes into account nine variables relating to population density, the percentage of the population living in rural areas, age profile, local government employment, Broadband access and access to services. The 8-fold Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification was used as an additional lens to help group Local Authorities into the four broader categories of Larger Cities, Urban with Substantial Rural, Mainly Rural and Islands & Remote Rural.

Index of Socio-economic Performance (SEP) for Rural and Small Town Scotland

The RESAS Classification is designed for economic analysis at the regional level, but other typologies have been developed which are based on a finer-grained analysis of a range of social and economic data at Data Zone level.

The SEP Index was created by the James Hutton Institute for Scottish Government, in order to provide an evidence base for the targeting of support to rural small businesses through the 2014-20 LEADER programme[69].

The Index is an “index of socio-economic performance (SEP), at a micro-geographical level, for rural and small town Scotland”. It is intended to provide an improved understanding of the main dimensions of contemporary geographical variation in socio-economic characteristics, and to move beyond twentieth-century rural and regional development stereotypes.

Figure 3: The relative socio-economic performance of rural areas in Scotland

Figure 3: The relative socio-economic performance of rural areas in Scotland, as identified by the James Hutton Institute’s Index of Socio-economic Performance (SEP) for Rural and Small Town Scotland (Copus & Hopkins 2015). Image reproduced courtesy of the James Hutton Institute. Source:
(image amended from original to show Shetland Islands in true geographical position)

The Index combines 20 indicators, using 2011 Census data, background data from the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation and other sources. The indicators relate to:

  • population, population change, old age dependency, change in the economically active population;
  • income, unemployment and receipt of or dependency on benefits;
  • drive time and time by public transport to key services;
  • health, disabilities;
  • change in number of business sites;
  • crime;
  • educational attainment and activity, people employed in professional occupations.

The Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification was used to identify all Data Zones falling in rural areas and small towns. For these Data Zones, each of the indicators was scored on a scale of 1-to-10 (higher scores indicating stronger performance). The scores for the different indicators were then combined to derive scores relating to four of the Strategic Objectives from the National Performance Framework: wealthier/fairer, healthier, safer/stronger, and smarter. Finally, the SEP Index for a Data Zone was calculated as a mean of the four Strategic Objective scores.

The 6-fold Urban Rural Classification was used as a ‘filter’ to analyse the four Strategic Objective indices, revealing different patterns (e.g. accessible rural areas tend to have the highest performance, while remote small towns have the lowest average performance).

Fragile Areas and Employment Action Areas in the Highlands and Islands

In order to prioritise their work to sustain and develop communities in the Highlands and Islands – targeting support at the areas that most need it – Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) has produced indices of ‘fragile areas’ and ‘employment action areas’[70]. The index of Fragile Areas has also been used by The Highland Council to inform their Local Development Plan[71].

Figure 4: Fragile Areas and Employment Action Areas in the Highlands & Islands, 2014

Figure 4: Fragile Areas and Employment Action Areas in the Highlands & Islands, 2014. Image reproduced courtesy of Highlands & Islands Enterprise. Source: Highlands & Islands Enterprise.

Fragile Areas are identified from four indicators: population change; drive-time to the nearest mid-sized service centre; median household income; and average unemployment rate. Data on these indicators was analysed for all Data Zones within HIE’s area, and each Data Zone was given a score from 0-to-5 (least to most fragile) for each of the indicators. The scores were then combined to identify fragile Data Zones. This initial list was sense-checked with HIE Area Managers and a revised list created.

Employment Action Areas are characterised by a lack of employment opportunities, and they are identified on the basis of: an over-reliance on a single employer or sector; having experienced or at risk of significant job losses resulting from major closures, and; persistent long-term unemployment caused by structural change. Economic, demographic and skills data is examined in relation to these criteria, and HIE Area Managers consulted.

Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation

The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)[72] is the Scottish Government's official tool to identify areas of multiple deprivation, where there is greater need for support and intervention. It is designed to identify small-area concentrations of multiple deprivation across the country in a consistent way. The index is generated from an analysis of 38 deprivation indicators that are combined into seven ‘domains’ – income, employment, health, education, crime, housing and access to services.

In calculating the SIMD score for each Data Zone, the individual domains are weighted, with income and employment being given the greatest weight, followed by health and education and then access, crime and housing.

Some additional work has been undertaken in relation to the application of SIMD for rural areas[73]. People in rural areas face different challenges to those in urban areas, and experience deprivation differently as a result. Poverty and deprivation are more spatially dispersed in rural areas and there is also generally a greater mix of deprived and less deprived people. For example, 9 out of 10 income-deprived people in rural areas do not live in ‘deprived areas’ identified by SIMD, which is designed to identify concentrations of multiple deprivation. Also, the most significant issues in rural areas are different from those in urban areas; they include, for example, less accessible services, limited Broadband access and quality, limited economic opportunities, a lack of affordable housing and higher fuel costs for heating and transport. The weighting applied in the normal SIMD calculation does not necessarily fully reflect the situation in rural Scotland.

Figure 5: SIMD data for access and housing deprivation in Argyll and Bute

Figure 5: SIMD data for access and housing deprivation in Argyll & Bute. These examples show the potential of SIMD data for producing a relatively nuanced picture of the challenges facing different rural areas. Access is clearly an issue across the whole of Argyll & Bute, while housing deprivation is more acute in some areas than in others. Source:

The Scottish Government has developed alternative approaches for the use of SIMD data in rural areas. For example, analysis can be restricted to rural areas alone, excluding urban areas. This means that rural Data Zones are not over-shadowed by urban ones in identifying which areas are most deprived.

Analysis can also be restricted to those domains that are most relevant to rural areas, such as the income, employment and access domains. The income and employment domains are given the largest weightings in the SIMD, because they are considered to be particularly important indicators of deprivation. In addition, because they are based on counts of people, they are proxies for individual deprivation. The access domain is included because it is particularly important in rural areas.

The figures can also be adjusted to reflect rural patterns. For example, unemployment counts can be averaged to take account of the seasonality of much rural employment.

SIMD data can also be combined with other data. As noted above, this was done in producing the Index of Socio-economic Performance (SEP) for Rural and Small Town Scotland, where selected SIMD data was combined with Census and other data.

Mapping Variations in Wellbeing

The James Hutton Institute has recently conducted research into the measurement of different forms of wellbeing at Data Zone level[74]. This has been done to support wider research into the inequalities in socio-economic outcomes in Scotland’s rural areas and small towns, and the effectiveness of policy responses to them.

Twelve dimensions of wellbeing[75] were used as a framework for the analysis, i.e.: income and wealth; jobs and earnings; housing; health and health status; education and skills; access to services; safety; environment; civic engagement and governance; life satisfaction; community, and; work and life balance.

In order to identify regional variations in wellbeing, the researchers ranked each of the eight classes in the 8-fold version of the Urban Rural Classification in relation to the 12 wellbeing indicators. This process ordered the 8 classes from the best performing to the worst performing for each indicator. For example, ‘very remote rural areas’ scored best for ‘environment’ and worst for ‘access to services’, whereas ‘large urban areas’ scored worst for environment and best for access to services.

4.5 Typologies and a Place-Based Approach to Policy in Scotland

In this chapter, we have reviewed the main typologies used to describe Scotland’s rural areas and set Scottish approaches in context with reference to wider trends in the rest of the UK and internationally. In summary, the main features of each typology in the present context are:

Typology/Index Date Key Features in the Present Context
Scottish Planning Policy
(Scottish Government)
2014 A national-level typology that differentiates 3 types of rural area. Designed for use in the planning context. Relevant to place-based planning because it classifies rural areas with reference to their relationships with urban areas and the resulting development pressures.
Urban Rural Classification
(Scottish Government)
2016 A national-level typology that differentiates 3 types of rural area. Used as a standard in multiple policy contexts. Relevant to place-based planning because it classifies rural areas with reference to their relationships with urban areas.
Sparsely Populated Areas
(James Hutton Inst., for Scot. Gov.)
2018 A national-level typology that distinguishes rural areas that are sparsely populated from those that are not. Relevant to place-based planning because it identifies areas that face particular demographic challenges.
RESAS Classification of the Rural Economy
(Scottish Government)
2018 A classification of Local Authorities by their degree of rurality. Too coarse-grained to be relevant to the development of place-based approaches to planning.
Index of Socio-economic Performance (SEP) for Rural and Small Town Scotland
(James Hutton Inst., for Scot. Gov.)
2015 A national index that classifies rural areas and small towns by their relative socio-economic performance. The index takes into account diverse factors. It is relevant to place-based planning because it provides a nuanced and place-specific picture of the challenges, assets and opportunities of different areas. Given the fine-grained and complex nature of the data, it is perhaps best used at local or regional level, rather than in production of a national-level picture of rural Scotland.
Fragile Areas and Employment Action Areas in the Highlands and Islands
(Highlands & Islands Enterprise)
2014 A regional index, covering HIE’s area, that identifies ‘fragile areas’ on the basis of 4 indicators and ‘employment action areas’ on the basis of 3 criteria. The fragile area data has been used in the Highland-wide Local Development Plan. This data is relevant to a place-based approach to planning, but is not available for Scotland as a whole.
Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation
(Scottish Government)
2016 The Scottish Government's tool to identify small-area concentrations of multiple deprivation across the country. Uses 38 indicators to take into account a diverse range of issues. The focus on concentrations of deprivation is problematic for rural areas, where deprivation is often experienced differently. However,
if used appropriately, SIMD data is valuable for developing place-based approaches to policy for rural areas. Given the fine-grained and complex nature of the data, it is perhaps best used at local or regional level, rather than in production of a national-level picture of rural Scotland.
Wellbeing at Community Level
(James Hutton Inst., for Scot. Gov.)
2018 This research by the JHI has explored the mapping of variations in wellbeing at micro-geographical level, using indicators for 12 dimensions of wellbeing. The data and analysis is relevant to place-based planning because it provides a nuanced and place-specific picture of the challenges, assets and opportunities of different areas. Given the fine-grained and complex nature of the information, it is perhaps best used at local or regional level, rather than in production of a national-level picture of rural Scotland.

In concluding the chapter, we will present some initial conclusions about the picture of rural Scotland that could be used to inform preparation of NPF4. We will return to these conclusions later in the report, after having reviewed the evidence for the key challenges facing rural areas and the needs of rural communities and businesses as relevant to planning.

What is rural? Typologies that Support Place-based Approaches to Policy

To be capable of supporting a place-based approach to planning, a typology has to take into account the particular needs of different areas and the challenges they face. It should also consider the assets of an area and its functional links to other places, anticipating the opportunities that these links might provide. In the words of one of our interviewees:

“For a nuanced picture of rural Scotland, there is a need to consider a wide variety of data in order to see the strengths and weaknesses of different communities and rural areas.” (Jonathan Hopkins, Research Scientist, James Hutton Institute)

Another interviewee (anonymous) commented that typologies are useful in providing an evidence-based assessment of the needs of a place, but the use of typologies should be ‘fit for purpose’ and different typologies might legitimately be used in different places or contexts. They also commented that it is important to consider opportunities as well as need in characterising rural areas.

These comments are amplified by the results of our online survey. In Section 2 of the survey, participants were asked about their knowledge and use of different typologies (See Annex A for details). 71 participants answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘Are you aware of or have you used any of the … classifications?’ (42 individuals and 29 organisations, together representing 27% of those participating in the survey). 104 participants (39%) answered ‘no’ (84 individuals; 20 organisations). 92 did not answer (34%).

Most of those who answered ‘yes’ expanded on their answers. A number of individual survey participants indicated that they use some of the terms (e.g. ‘remote’) in a colloquial manner when describing where they live or visit. Some individuals said that they had used one of the typologies for a specific purpose, such as: in discussions at the Scottish Rural Parliament and other events; in completing questionnaires; for research purposes; in applying for funding; in planning-related activities (e.g. completing a planning application; objecting to a proposed development; development management work; producing Environmental Impact Assessment chapters), and; in work for organisations such as the Crofting Commission and Rural Housing Scotland.

Of the organisations who answered ‘yes’, 14 had used the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification, 10 had used the SPP typology, 5 had used HIE’s Fragile Areas index, 4 had used the SPA typology, 3 had used the RESAS Classification and 2 had used the SEP Index. The uses included responding to consultations, writing briefings, writing or commenting on planning applications, applying for funding, advocating investment in rural areas and/or policy change, informing organisational priorities and decision-making, and undertaking research on rural areas.

167 survey participants (63% of the total; 119 individuals, 48 organisations) answered the question ‘How well do you think the … classifications … describe communities across rural Scotland?’ by selecting an option on a 5-point scale from 1 (‘Not at all well’) to 5 (‘Very well’).

The majority (56%) of the individual participants selected options at the upper end of the scale (i.e. options 4 and 5). Around a third (34%) picked the middle option (3). The minority (11%) selected options at the lower end of the scale. 44% of the organisations that responded selected options at the upper end of the scale. 35% picked the middle option. 21% selected options at the lower end of the scale.

56 participants offered further information on why they feel that current classifications and typologies do not adequately describe communities across rural Scotland. The reasons given include that:

  • There are too many classifications and there is a need for a single or simpler system;
  • (By contrast) The typologies are too broadly-defined to capture the diversity of rural Scotland. There is insufficient variety of classes/types and a need for use of a wider or different range of variables;
  • Current typologies do not represent – or poorly represent – certain types or experiences of ‘rural’ and do not reflect the specific characteristics and circumstances of different rural areas;
  • Classifications/typologies do not identify the connections between areas.

Some responses challenged the act of classification per se, or expressed a lack of clarity as to the purpose or details of the various typologies.

The interviews and survey responses evidence a broad level of support for the perceived usefulness of rural typologies in different contexts. They also indicate a desire for typologies that capture the diversity of rural Scotland more effectively and that take account of a broader range of attributes. This reflects the trend in recent years, identified in the literature review, for the development of more nuanced typologies of rural Scotland – typologies that support a move away from ‘spatially-blind’ policies to policies that are more attuned to the diversity of rural Scotland.[76]

Our review of existing typologies has indicated that there is a significant amount of data already available and that this data can be and has been used to generate a picture of rural Scotland that captures many of the key challenges and strengths of different types of rural area. As Hopkins & Copus have argued[77], there “is a clear need to establish priority areas for indicator selection and data collection: ‘trying to measure everything’ is unhelpful”. The selection of appropriate indicators is a process that requires input from policymakers and a range of stakeholders with relevant experience and expertise across Scotland. Given this, we will confine ourselves here to identifying the factors that previous research has identified as most pertinent to describing the challenges facing and opportunities open to different rural areas.

The Continuing Relevance of Urban-Rural Interactions

In this chapter, we have a reviewed a number of ‘functional approaches’ to typology that move beyond consideration of a single variable such as topography or population density to consider the interaction of a number of variables and the functional links between one area and another. Functional typologies can distinguish different areas on the basis of the particular challenges they face, and also in terms of their development assets and opportunities[78].

In particular, we have reviewed urban rural typologies, which are relevant in the present context because they focus on two of the key challenges in rural Scotland, i.e. population and access to services (see Chapter 6). They are also relevant because a rural area’s relative proximity to or distance from a major town or a city influences the development pressures in the area and the development opportunities that are open to people there. Access to urban areas is known to be a factor in the socio-economic performance and development of rural areas and small towns, with Accessible areas and towns generally performing very well and Remote areas and their small towns facing multiple challenges[79].

The 8-fold version of the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification distinguishes between three types of rural area and small town – Accessible, Remote and Very Remote. This typology is a standard for classifying rural areas and small towns in Scotland and its use as a basis for developing a more nuanced picture of rural Scotland would enable a number of different typologies and sets of data to be brought together within a common framework.

The current version of Scottish Planning Policy takes a broadly similar approach and applies it in the specific context of planning. It does this by defining the three rural categories – pressurised, intermediate and remote & fragile – on the basis of their proximity to urban areas and the differing development pressures that they face as a result.

One question that will need to be addressed is whether or not small towns should be included in a typology of ‘rural’ areas in NPF4. As noted above, a number of recent typologies bring together both rural areas and small towns, e.g. the Index of Socio-economic Performance, classification of Sparsely Populated Areas and ongoing work to measure wellbeing. In an interview for this project, Jonathan Hopkins – a research scientist at the James Hutton Institute who has been involved in all that work – commented:

“One difficulty in defining rural is what we do with small towns. It’s relatively easy to exclude the big cities from a definition of rural, but small towns and the issues affecting them are not the same as cities … yet they are different from ‘rural’ areas. So where do they sit?”

A More Nuanced Picture of the Challenges Facing ‘Remote’ Areas

In Section 4.2 above, we noted general arguments against the use of simple ‘territorial type’ models – such as ‘island’ or ‘mountainous’ regions – in the context of place-based approaches to policy. However, we also noted that territorial typologies can have advantages, such as identifying areas facing common challenges and with common needs, deriving from shared characteristics.

In Section 4.3, in reporting our rapid review of the use of rural typologies in Local Development Plans, we noted that a number of island Local Authorities have policies that recognise specific challenges and needs arising from the island nature of their areas.

As one survey participant put it:

“Island and coastal communities frequently make the case for special consideration and an additional set of considerations which to some extent has been reflected in the Islands legislation” (Angus Hardie, Scottish Community Alliance)

And as one of our interviewees – Suzanne Shearer, Development Planning Sub-Committee Chair, Heads of Planning Scotland – commented:

“An island authority is different from a ‘rural’ authority. You have to recognise that there are big differences in terms of service connections and support networks …. the Islands Bill … is hugely important for island communities in recognising that difference.”

As noted by both of these contributors, the specific circumstances of islands have been recognised by the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. Given the particular challenges facing island areas, it may be that this particular territorial type should be taken into account in developing a typology of rural areas to support preparation of NPF4.

A second key distinction to be made within remote and very remote rural areas is between those rural areas that are sparsely-populated and those that are not. At European level, EU cohesion policy has targeted sparsely-populated areas in recognition of the particular challenges facing such areas. The James Hutton Institute’s recent work to define and identify Sparsely Populated Areas here in Scotland is part of a wider programme of research that arises from a recognition that some rural areas are facing particular stark and pressing demographic challenges.

The identification of the Scottish SPAs is based on the ‘population potential’ concept and this shifts the perspective for remote areas, providing a different answer to the question ‘remote from what?’ The answer here is not ‘remote from major towns and cities’ but ‘remote from concentrations of people, wherever they may live’. The identification of SPAs allows a more nuanced picture to be drawn of the Remote and Very Remote areas of the Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification, distinguishing between those areas where falling population numbers and a changing population profile are key challenges and those where they are not, or where the demographic challenges take a different form. For example, the entire land mass of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland is classified as ‘Very Remote’ in the Urban Rural Classification. However, this does not reflect demographic variation within the three archipelagos – while all three Local Authorities have significant Sparsely Populated Areas, they also have extensive areas that are not sparsely populated, especially around the towns of Stornoway, Kirkwall and Lerwick.

Demographic challenges are particularly significant across large parts of rural Scotland, but their nature and relevance varies, even within Very Remote areas. Inclusion of the recently-defined Sparsely Populated Areas in a typology that informs NPF4 would support a more nuanced policy approach to this problem.

Capturing Differences in the Ensemble of Territorial Challenges and Assets

We have seen that place-based approaches require typologies that draw on a relatively wide range of data and that consider the opportunities and assets of an area as well as the challenges it faces. Scotland’s Urban Rural Classification remains a relevant starting point, but it is not capable, on its own, of reflecting differences in the socio-economic dynamics which may originate within rural areas[80]. There is a need in this context to consider other kinds of challenges, beyond questions of demographics and access, and “to capture differences in the ensemble of territorial assets which are likely to determine the nature of local development processes, and their relative successfulness”[81].

This is a point that was made by a number of our interviewees. For instance, Dr Calum MacLeod, Policy Director of Community Land Scotland, commented:

“The idea that there is one ‘rural’ is not helpful, not sufficiently analytical nor sufficiently nuanced. It doesn’t allow us to identify the levers to make the goal of having communities in particular areas happen.”

As we have seen earlier in this chapter, there are now a range of indices that characterise rural areas of Scotland on the basis of diverse social and economic data. Many of these consider data on population and on access to services, both of which are understood to be significant issues for many rural areas. Income and employment data are also commonly included, as important indicators of socio-economic performance or deprivation.

The SEP Index and the James Hutton Institute’s current work on wellbeing include additional indicators relating to health, education and crime/safety. Added to that, the wellbeing work also considers indicators for wealth, housing, environment, civic engagement and governance, life satisfaction, community and work/life balance. It has been noted that there is considerable overlap between the concepts of socio-economic performance and wellbeing[82].

There are examples where factors such as these are already being taken into account in planning contexts (e.g. the use of Fragile Areas information in the Highland-wide LDP). Wider use of such data would support the further implementation of a place-based approach to planning.

In considering how best this information might be used, there are a number of issues to consider.

Firstly, while data is readily available at a high resolution for some domains, such as economic activity, health, housing, education and services, the data is poorer for some other domains, such as environmental wellbeing and for perception-based aspects of wellbeing[83]. There is therefore a need for further work to develop indicators for some domains and to define the issues that are a priority for rural areas in the context; stakeholder expertise should be incorporated in this process[84].

Secondly, there are issues of scale – of whether these kinds of indicators should be used in producing a national typology of rural areas for planning purposes, or would be better used to support the production of LDPs and any other local sub-national plans and policies. Because much of the data that has been used in the different indices and typologies is available at the small area level of Data Zones it corresponds, roughly speaking, with the community, small town or small region level[85] and is suitable for drawing a fine-grained picture that supports place-based approaches to policy[86]. The data can of course be aggregated in the analysis of larger areas, and the information can also be used to help understand the functional links between different areas.

It is suggested here that the finer-grained analysis of the different challenges, needs, opportunities and assets of rural areas is best undertaken at the local or regional level. This is in order to allow the scope for variation that is necessary in order to develop more locally-relevant information to support the development of place-based policies.



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