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.

5 The Challenges Facing Rural Scotland

5.1 Introduction

In the survey, we asked participants: ‘what will be the main challenges facing rural communities and businesses over the next generation?’ Answers to this question fell into one of two categories: (a) broad social, economic and environmental challenges (e.g. climate change), and; (b) challenges relating to particular types of development (e.g. housing, broadband provision). In this chapter, we will focus on the former – the key societal challenges and needs to which development is a response. In the next chapter, we will return to the matter of particular developments on the ground that might be anticipated in response to the anticipated societal challenges and needs.

The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018[87] and the recent Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 [88] identify a series of outcomes that are to be addressed by the National Islands Plan and the National Planning Framework, respectively.

In the case of the National Islands Plan, the outcomes include increasing population levels. They also include improving and promoting: sustainable economic development; community empowerment; transport services and digital connectivity, and; environmental wellbeing and health and wellbeing. They include reducing fuel poverty and enhancing biosecurity.

The National Planning Framework must now address the outcomes of increasing population levels in rural areas and improving health and wellbeing. It must also address the outcomes of meeting housing needs (in particular the housing needs for older and disabled people), improving equality and eliminating discrimination, meeting greenhouse gas emissions targets and securing positive effects for biodiversity.

Once the comments collated from the survey responses and interviews have been grouped for thematic similarity, they identify 6 key challenges – demographic trends (particularly depopulation), structural changes to the rural economy, the ‘live-ability’ of rural areas (i.e. standard of living, quality of life, wellbeing), climate change and conservation, the administrative, policy and fiscal environment, and the supply of land for development. The charts below indicate the proportion of survey responses relating to each challenge. These challenges are broadly similar to the outcomes identified in the Islands and Planning Acts, with the addition of challenges relating to the administrative, policy and fiscal environment and to the availability of land.

Changes to the rural economy and to the ‘live-ability’ of rural areas were the two most commonly identified challenges in the responses of both individuals and organisations. Demographic changes and challenges relating to the policy environment rank third and fourth for both groups of participants, though in different order. Interestingly, economic, ‘live-ability’, policy and demographic changes account for similar proportions of the responses of organisations (Figure 7), perhaps indicating that these issues are generally seen as equally significant. Challenges relating to climate & conservation and to the supply of land were identified by both groups as significant, if by a smaller number of individuals and groups.

Figure 6: Challenges identified by individuals participating in the online survey. A total of 126 responses were received on this question, with some individuals contributing more than one response (i.e. identifying more than one challenge).

Figure 6: Challenges identified by individuals participating in the online survey. A total of 126 responses were received on this question, with some individuals contributing more than one response (i.e. identifying more than one challenge).

Figure 7: Challenges identified by organisations participating in the online survey

Figure 7: Challenges identified by organisations participating in the online survey.
A total of 105 responses were received on this question, with some organisations contributing more than one response (i.e. identifying more than one challenge).

The challenges identified by research interviewees are similar to those identified by the survey, but the relative frequency with which interviewees mentioned these challenges was different. Policy challenges were most frequently highlighted in the interviews, followed by demographic change. Issues of ‘live-ability’, the supply of land, the rural economy and climate & conservation were raised with similar frequency.

Figure 8: Challenges identified by interviewees

Figure 8: Challenges identified by interviewees. A total of 82 responses were received on this issue from interviewees, with some interviewees contributing more than one response (i.e. identifying more than one challenge).

Participants at the Moffat and Oban workshops confirmed that depopulation is a key challenge, and also indicated that service provision (which falls under our ‘live-ability’ theme) and the biodiversity crisis are concerns. National-level stakeholders attending the Edinburgh workshop agreed that population change, climate change and the protection and enhancement of biodiversity are key challenges. ‘Live-ability’ issues of health, the cost of living and access to services were also identified as concerns.

The various challenges are discussed one-by-one in sections 5.2-5.7 below. As a general point, it is worth noting that these challenges are interconnected – something that a number of our interviewees wished to emphasise:

“Communities that are flourishing have good connectivity and infrastructure, sustainable population levels and so on (near Inverness, for example). Those who are not are facing multiple inter-linked challenges …. The key thing is systems thinking – how you make connections at macro level and then turn that into development.” (Dr Calum MacLeod, Policy Director, Community Land Scotland)

“There are three big challenges that planning is critical to: population – maintaining and growing viable populations in rural areas; responding to climate change and the climate emergency, and; land use change – there is a role for a much more proactive approach to planning in navigating the land use changes that will occur. These challenges are connected.” (Hamish Trench, Chief Executive, Scottish Land Commission)

5.2 Population

A number of interviewees and survey participants identified persistent depopulation as a particularly significant challenge. The survey responses and interviews indicate that this challenge is a concern across all sectors – it was identified by community sector and business organisations, public sector interviewees and environmental and heritage NGOs.

“Depopulation is a key issue. If we want to reverse depopulation, that is a major challenge.” (Amanda Burgauer, Chair, Scottish Rural Action)

“The demographic challenge is quite stark. We are losing young people and people retire into rural areas, so there is an imbalance.” (Ian Cooke, Director, Development Trusts Association Scotland)

“Particular priority should be given to sparsely populated areas. When you have depopulation, how do you address that and why do you address that? There is a public interest argument here – safeguarding existing communities who ‘have a right to be’ and growing communities.” (Dr Calum MacLeod, Policy Director, Community Land Scotland)

“Just to stand still demographically, the South of Scotland has to bring in around 800 working aged people per year …. The big challenge is the demographic – to keep young people, to bring in young people and to use older people better.” (Prof. Russell Griggs, South of Scotland Economic Partnership)

“perhaps the overriding concern for island and remote rural communities is their economic viability, based on the lack of younger/family residents (and therefore available workforce) in the area” (FSB Scotland)

“In some rural areas we have seen long-term decline and this has become more of a concern. This problem is particularly important because it drives a lot of other things.” (Jonathan Hopkins, Research Scientist, James Hutton Institute)

The survey and interview evidence highlights concern regarding falling population numbers. It also evidences concern over the changing make-up of rural communities, with the loss of young people as they leave for education and work, falling numbers of working age people and too few families with children, and an ageing population profile as a result of these trends and of the in-migration of older people to rural areas.

Research participants expressed concern over the capacity of rural communities to sustain themselves and to develop and grow into the future. They also highlighted other consequences of depopulation such as increasing dependency within communities and difficulties sustaining services, problems with the economic viability of rural areas as the population becomes skewed towards the less economically active and the concentration of the rural population increasingly in accessible areas, with endemic decline in more remote areas.

When asked in the survey if this challenge affects all rural areas, or only certain types of rural area, the majority (65% of those who responded to this question) said it affects all areas. 33% said it affects certain types of rural area, with particular reference to islands, coastal areas, remote areas, “areas hard to reach by road”, sparsely-populated areas, fragile areas, “smaller communities” and “dispersed communities”. 2% were unsure.

Some interviewees and survey participants also pointed to the challenge of population growth in rural areas closer to Scotland’s towns and cities, although this was raised much less frequently than the challenge of depopulation.

“In less remote rural areas you have issues created by commuters living in an area but working elsewhere, perhaps in the nearest city.” (Suzanne Shearer, Development Planning Sub-Committee Chair, Heads of Planning Scotland)

“A lot of rural towns have turned into commuter places. It’s a challenge sustaining high streets.” (Ian Cooke, Director, Development Trusts Association Scotland)

“In semi-rural communities, the way people see community has changed, because of the ease of getting around, travel for leisure for example, or to access services. There has been a widening of the concept of place.” (Alex Downie, Scottish Coalfields Regeneration Trust)

The demographic challenges highlighted by the survey participants and interviewees reflect the findings from the literature review undertaken for this research.

Concern over depopulation was evident in the consultations undertaken in 2018 by the National Council of Rural Advisors (NCRA)[89], and in consultations and research undertaken by Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE)[90].

Recent work by the James Hutton Institute[91] has found that almost half (48.7%) of the land area of Scotland is Sparsely Populated, and contains 2.6% of the population. This low population is the result of decades of population decline. In the 1990s and 2000s, for example, the population of the SPAs fell on average by 1.8%. This average masks significant variation – the Highland sub-regions of the SPA saw modest population growth, while all other sub-regions saw falls in population of over 5%; the largest fall (>11%) was in the Western Isles.

These recent changes in population numbers have come after a long period of historic population decline, and at a time when the urban population grew by c.5% and the population of rural areas and small towns outside of the SPA grew by c.9%. The presence of towns and cities – with their concentrations of people, economic activity and services – appears to have had a significant impact on nearby rural areas. For example, while SPAs in the Northern Isles lost over 7% of their population in the 1990s and 2000s, the population of rural areas around the main towns of Lerwick and Kirkwall grew by 12%. The SPA in the Western Isles saw a decline of c.12%, but areas closer to Stornoway saw a smaller loss of less than 0.25%. In population terms, the fastest growing area of rural and small town Scotland has been the south and east Highlands, which is relatively accessible to urban centres such as Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Stirling and Inverness.

The age composition of the SPAs has also been changing. The number of children in the SPAs has shrunk by 22%, compared with only 6% in other rural areas and small towns. The working age population in the SPAs has fallen by almost 3% while it has increased by over 8% in other rural areas and small towns. In the SPAs, the population of people aged 65 and over grew (by 23%), if less rapidly than in the rest of rural/small town Scotland (+32%).

In terms of projections for the future, if nothing happens to change current trends then the SPAs will lose c.28% of their combined population by 2046. The population is forecast to decline in all SPA sub-regions across the country. The Western Isles, Argyll & Bute, and the Southern Uplands will be the worst affected (losing more than 30%). The least affected area – the Northern Isles – is nonetheless projected to lose almost 20% of its population. In terms of different age groups, the working age population seems likely to shrink most (by 33% by 2046). The numbers of children and older people are forecast to fall by less than 20%, resulting in a higher dependency ratio. It is estimated that net migration levels of 550-1,300 persons per year are needed between now and the 2040s to stabilise the SPA population at current levels.

The key finding from the James Hutton Institute’s research is that:

“The Sparsely Populated Areas (SPA) of Scotland have a demographic legacy which, in the absence of intervention, will result in decades of population decline, and shrinkage of its working age population, on a scale which implies serious challenges for economic development, and consequences for its landscape and ecology which are poorly understood.”[92]


“The key demographic issue for the SPA is not an excess of elderly people, but the relatively small number of children and young people, which in the years to come will translate into a small working age population, which will have serious implications for the workforce and economy. The relatively small cohorts in the child bearing age will, unless counterbalanced by substantial in-migration, lead to a vicious cycle of decline.”[93]

Amongst the potential consequences of this trend and potential responses to it are: impacts on the provision of services to people in the SPAs; changes in land use associated with population shrinkage or resettlement and their effects on the environment and ecology; changing settlement patterns and population redistribution, and; medium-term changes in land-based activities.

“It would seem that the only way to achieve stability at current population levels would be to find a way to stimulate net migration rates which are currently only achieved in the larger cities and towns of the Central Belt …. another very obvious policy implication is that a single rural policy, applied to both the SPA and to more accessible rural areas … is not appropriate. The issues faced by the SPA, in relation to sustaining economic activity, protecting the environment, and maintenance of services, are very different from those of peri-urban areas.”[94]

These trends in Scotland are part of a wider pattern[95]. In the rural parts of Council of Europe states that are performing poorly, many are living in poverty, reliant on small-scale agricultural production and experiencing basic service provision. The population is declining as those who are economically active leave. The OECD has identified ‘population ageing and migration’ and ‘urbanisation’ as ‘mega-trends’ or global shifts that “are likely to influence how rural areas can succeed in a more complex, dynamic and challenging environment”[96].

Many of the ‘predominantly rural’ regions of the EU are experiencing population decline, while many ‘intermediate’ regions are experiencing population growth[97]. A shrinking population has become “the normal trajectory” for many rural regions of Europe[98].

This rural depopulation results “from a complex ‘vicious circle’ of interrelated economic and social factors” such as agricultural becoming less labour intensive, employment growth becoming more focused on the service sector which favours larger urban centres, ‘slow leak’ out-migration from rural to urban regions especially of younger and well-educated workers, divestment and a negative natural population balance[99].

The ‘knock-on impacts’ of depopulation include “land abandonment, decreased employment, reduced service provision at a time of increasing demand, and increased social fragmentation as a result of higher levels of poverty and exclusion”, although demographic ageing can also present opportunities, by encouraging innovation in engaging older people in economic and social development for example[100].

Currently, rural shrinkage is more prevalent in the EU-13 countries of central and eastern Europe than it is in the EU-15 of western Europe, but this masks variation within these areas[101]. In the north, the ‘Northern Sparsely Populated Areas’ (NSPA) – taking in parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway – was defined with the accession of Sweden and Finland to the EU in order to recognise “the unique characteristics” of these areas and “that remoteness, extremely low population densities and constraining climatic conditions create special challenges”[102]. Sparsely populated areas have also been identified in Ireland and Iceland and in a number of southern European countries[103].

5.3 The Changing Rural Economy

Some of our interviewees highlighted deep structural changes in the rural economy, particularly those associated with the decline of agriculture and other land-based industries, the closure of several major employers and the rise of a service economy based around tourism:

“The rural economy on the smaller islands is going from a dependency on agriculture to depending on tourism. This is not all bad, but it is quite worrying because the use of the land is becoming more problematic. Crofters and farmers worry about how they can continue production, which has become more expensive and not economic. If we become too dependent on tourism, it’s going to become a problem, and it will be a problem if we no longer have the means to have locally-produced food. There won’t be enough food security and we’ll be increasingly dependent on imports from outside.” (Camille Dressler, Chair, the Scottish Islands Federation)

“Tourism has a vital role to play in the prosperity of rural Scotland, and in many areas like the Highlands & Islands its reach makes it the only serious economic game in town” (David Richardson, Highlands & Islands Development Manager, Federation of Small Businesses Scotland)

“One area that is really crucial and that is taking off is tourism, along with food and drink tourism …. For Scottish Land & Estates members, it’s an area that has grown and can grow further …. With that comes challenges of management …” (Gavin Mowat, Policy Advisor – Rural Communities, Scottish Land & Estates)

“the future of agriculture is uncertain and this will impact immediately on the fragility of rural communities unless things like planning can be adaptive.” (Robbie Calvert, Policy & Practice Officer, Royal Town Planning Institute)

“In Scotland, we are losing many of the large-scale industries….The coalfields is one example …. Another example is Longannet power station which, when it closed, meant the loss of around 200 jobs lost, around 1,000 in terms of indirect employment, mostly in rural Fife.” (Alex Downie, Development Manager – Enterprise & Development, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust)

Particular challenges identified by interviewees include an over-dependency on tourism in some areas and a need to diversify the economy; the fact that infrastructure provision (e.g. vehicle parking, toilets) has not kept pace with tourism growth; the impact of tourism on the availability of housing for local residents and for employees in the tourism sector, as domestic properties are put to use as tourist accommodation; difficulties recruiting staff for tourism, leisure and hospitality businesses, and; the pressures of tourism, especially ‘over-tourism’, on the natural environment and cultural heritage.

Individuals who responded to the online survey also highlighted the difficulties in sustaining crofting and farming, and the challenges attendant on a significant growth in tourism.

A wide range of organisations who responded to the survey identified economic challenges as being a central concern, including community-sector organisations, business organisations, heritage and environment NGOs, and public bodies.

“we recognise that there is a need for infrastructure to ensure that rural communities are resilient enough to deal with mass tourism without eroding the very thing that draws people to Scotland.” (Historic Environment Scotland)

“Tourism facilities and infrastructure to support tourists are … a key issue. In other words, how to provide the facilities for increasing numbers of tourists, in a fragile landscape.” (Federation of Small Businesses Scotland)

“Economy – already major reductions in employment in farming and fishing from historical highs, and likely to continue, and possible shift to more intensive practices in some areas, and abandonment in others.” (National Trust for Scotland)

In their survey responses, individuals and organizations also highlighted broader economic challenges such as:

  • difficulties accessing employment in some rural areas and, in particular, a lack of jobs for young people and a lack of well-paid work;
  • challenges in attracting and retaining staff, both for low-skilled position and for skilled professional jobs;
  • limited career, educational and skills-development opportunities;
  • occupational segregation and gender inequalities;
  • a lack of investment in and support for rural businesses, particularly small businesses;
  • challenges brought by the growth of online retailing and being at the end of long supply lines.

Many of the survey participants stated that the issues identified above affected all rural areas but some highlighted the challenges in particular areas, including islands, coastal areas, the Highlands, remote areas, fragile areas and sparsely-populated areas.

The interview and survey responses reflect the wider evidence for change in the Scottish rural economy. The rural economy is often equated with agriculture, forestry and fishing but, while this sector remains important for many areas, it no longer represents the major component of the economy. Recent Scottish Government research[104] has found that the contribution of agriculture, forestry and fishing to the GVA of Scotland’s Local Authority areas varies from 4% for ‘islands and remote rural’ Authorities and 3% for ‘mainly rural’ Authorities to 1% in ‘urban with substantial rural’ Authorities . These are averages for different classes of Local Authority, and the range for individual Local Authorities is from 1% to 8%.

Services have come to dominate: public administration, education and health contributes 21-27% of GVA to the economies of rural Local Authorities or urban Authorities with substantial rural areas. Distribution, transport, accommodation and food contributes 20-21%. Manufacturing contributes 8-15%. Real estate contributes 10-12%. Construction and Business services both contribute 7-9%. Mining, quarrying and utilities contributes 4-7%. Other services and household activities contribute 4%. Information and communications contributes 2-3%. Finance contributes 1-3%.

In terms of employment[105], public administration, health and education employ 29-33% in rural Local Authorities or urban Authorities with substantial rural areas ‘urban with substantial rural’ areas. The distribution, hotels and restaurants sector employs
16-20%. Banking and finance employ 11-16%. Transport and communication employ
8-9%. Manufacturing employs 7-9%. Construction employs 7%-8%. Agriculture, forestry and fishing employ 1-8%. Energy and water employ 6%.

The economy of Sparsely Populated Areas is broadly similar to that in rural and small town Scotland more widely. The services sector is the most important part of the economy at 73% of overall employment; the secondary industries account for 17% and the primary industries 10%[106]. Within the SPA, the service economy has a particular emphasis on accommodation and food services, which employs over 11% of the workforce. This pattern is likely to be linked to a relatively higher dependence on tourism in SPAs. Traditional land-based industries are more important as employers in the SPAs, and particularly in the Northern Isles and in Southern Scotland, although employment in these industries has fallen significantly both in the SPA and in other rural areas and small towns over the last 20 years or so.

Unemployment is lower in rural than in urban Scotland, and employment and activity rates are higher[107]. Overall, remote rural areas perform better than accessible rural areas, which in turn perform better than urban areas. It is not clear whether this represents a better-performing labour market in remote areas, or the result of out-migration from these areas of those would otherwise be unemployed, or both.

Part time employment and self-employment are more common in rural than in urban areas[108]. In remote rural areas, 25% of the workforce are self-employed, which compares with 18% in accessible rural areas and 11% for the rest of Scotland. One third of the workforce is working part-time in their main job in remote rural areas, 28% in accessible rural and 26% in the rest of Scotland. Home working is more prevalent in rural areas, with 27% of the workforce being home workers in remote areas, 19% in accessible areas and 10% in the rest of Scotland.

It may be that the higher employment rates in remote areas are being supported by greater employment in agriculture, forestry and fishing, but in lower-paying jobs. The characteristics of farm labour are changing, and there are variations in this. There are large differences in the rate of change in casual and seasonal staff use within and outside of the SPAs, for example, and the slower rate of change in agriculture within the SPAs could be a result of relatively poor access to other employment opportunities[109].

Small businesses are relatively more prevalent as employers in rural areas, with 68% of private sector employees in remote areas working for small businesses and 54% in accessible areas, compared to 32% in the rest of Scotland[110]. This difference was flagged up by respondents to the recent National Council of Rural Advisors’ consultation, who asked that consideration be given to the distinctive features of the rural economy such as the prevalence of micro and small businesses, and the seasonal nature of the economy[111]. This seasonality results in a need for rural businesses to diversify in order to survive[112].

Those living in accessible rural areas have the highest average incomes in Scotland, while those living in remote areas have the lowest[113]. This is partly to be explained by the proximity of accessible areas to urban centres, and to the presence of higher income commuters in accessible areas. Commuting from accessible rural areas has become more common as the structure of the economy has changed and workplaces have increasingly become disconnected from residential locations[114]. Low incomes in remote areas, combined with additional costs for food, fuel and other goods, can lead to a lower standard of living, with income needing to be between 10% and a third higher in remote areas to achieve the equivalent standard of living[115].

There is variation in the economic characteristics of localities within remoter rural areas. For example, median incomes for some Sparsely Populated Areas are lower than for others, with higher median incomes in the Northern Isles and the south and east Highlands, potentially as a result of the presence of the oil and gas industry and of easier access to large cities and tourism[116].

Whilst there is higher level of commuting in rural areas in close proximity to urban areas, Sparsely Populated Areas also show net out-commuting, which is strongest in the sparsely populated parts of the Northern and Western Isles (probably as a result of the presence of the central towns of Kirkwall, Lerwick and Stornoway) and in the Southern Uplands and the South and East Highlands (which are relatively accessible to areas with a high volume of employment)[117].

It seems, therefore, that those remote and Sparsely Populated Areas that are more distant than other Remote areas and SPAs from cities and major towns, concentrated tourist markets and other economic opportunities have lower median incomes, as well as higher rates of unemployment[118].

There is also geographical variation in terms of the gender pay gap, which is 14% in accessible areas and 17% in remote areas and in the rest of Scotland. Women working in remote rural areas have the lowest overall annual median income, at £23,941. It is not clear what drives this[119]. Restricted employment opportunities were listed among the main challenges for women in rural areas during the stakeholder engagement process recently undertaken by the National Council of Rural Advisors[120]. One of the factors identified in this is a mismatch between the skill sets of many women and the skill sets required for the jobs available in rural areas. A recent study for Highlands & Islands Enterprise also found that gender inequalities in employment and pay affect most age groups in the region, except amongst 16-24 year olds – the evidence suggests that women become disengaged from the labour market as they get older[121]. This study also found that women in the Highlands & Islands are more likely to work part-time than men and than women in Scotland as a whole, and they are more likely to be unemployed or economically inactive. The research found that the gender pay gap is greater in the Highlands & Islands than the Scottish average. It linked these patterns to the greater caring and family responsibilities taken on by women, and to structural barriers such as limited childcare provision, poor transport and a lack of access to training.

The above changes in the Scottish rural economy reflect wider trends across western Europe, where “economies … have moved away from exploiting natural resources and manufacturing, towards service activities whose key requirements are human capital and information”[122]. At European level, it has been recognised that islands, mountainous, sparsely-populated and coastal regions face specific challenges including low levels of economic diversification, small-scale economic activities and limited added value, with natural resources being exported unprocessed[123]. These factors limit the economic resilience of such areas. Such areas also often have an insufficiently diverse labour market with limited employment opportunities, for women for example (with resulting gender inequalities). Islands, sparsely-populated areas and mountainous areas also face challenges of accessibility, connectivity and the cost of living that, together with a weaker economic base, can lead to emigration and the out-migration of higher skilled and qualified people.

5.4 The ‘Live-ability’ of Rural Areas

“People’s experience of the ‘live-ability’ of a place is important – this means the services that are needed to make a place viable, to maintain community life.” (Jonathan Hopkins, Research Scientist, James Hutton Institute)

This comment from an interviewee sums up another major area of challenge identified by participants in the research.

“There is a double trend of local authorities cutting services and communities resurrecting them. We need to combat the ongoing centralisation of services.” (Jon Hollingdale, Chief Executive, Community Woodlands)

“Having access to essential services is problematic …. Waste and recycling are difficult for islands due to the distance to services for processing this …. There is a problem of social care, particularly for the elderly …. A lot of islands are unhappy about their elderly having to leave for care homes on the mainland. More could be done to allow people to stay at home when elderly or ill …. There is a wide disparity in rural areas around the availability of schools, which are often also ‘connecting places’ within communities …” (Camille Dressler, Chair, Scottish Islands Federation)

“There may be a case in trying to … encourage more rural communities to undertake their own service provision …. Rural communities rely on complex but fragile infrastructure. If someone moves away, who comes in to fill that role?” (David Wood, Planning & Policy Manager, PAS)

“The issue of remoteness is vital …. There is a real issue about how people access public services. One of the most striking things that comes up in community surveys is the need for different models of care, a lot of which can be done at community level – children, the elderly, those with special needs and so on. But this is not being enabled, in terms of shifting resources to match aspirations for example …. We need to build a place around what people need.” (Ian Cooke, Director, Development Trusts Association Scotland)

“Cost of living challenges apply [on the islands], and proximity to services can be an issue – although not to say that they don’t happen on the mainland. One issue that may be similar in a lot of remote rural settlements is in recruiting and maintaining a skilled workforce especially in areas such as healthcare and local government. Travel distances to services can be considerable in remote rural locations, access to services are impacted upon by public transport timetables and that includes ferries and planes as well as buses and trains… The cost of living is a contributing factor to rural poverty, fuel poverty is an increased issue in remote and island communities.” (Suzanne Shearer, Development Planning Sub-Committee Chair, Heads of Planning Scotland)

Based on these interview comments, we can define the challenge of the ‘live-ability’ of rural areas in terms of access to a range of public and other services, the strength of community support networks and social bonds, and the cost of living.

Individuals and organisations responding to the survey similarly identified issues around access to services including schools and education, health and social care, shops, banking, post offices and garages/fuel stations. Most survey participants stated that such issues affect all rural areas. However, four organisations consider that they are most relevant in particular types of area, including remote areas, sparsely-populated areas and areas under pressure of urban expansion. One individual highlighted the particular challenges in Sparsely Populated Areas, and another individual highlighted the challenge of accessing services in rural areas under pressure from development, where a rising population puts pressure on existing services.

Some organisations identified negative trends in the provision of services. For example, Strathard Community Council mentioned “Cuts to rural services as austerity forces a continued centralisation of services. Pressure on services as a result of ‘urbanisation’ of areas close to towns and cities.” Two individuals highlighted austerity as a problem in terms of its impacts on rural communities.

Alongside access to services, survey participants highlighted challenges associated with heating, fuel and energy costs and with fuel poverty. Three individuals highlighted these challenges as applying to all rural areas; two individuals consider them to be particularly relevant in island, remote and fragile areas. Two organisations also raised these issues. Other costs of living, including higher delivery charges, were identified by two individual survey participants.

The Strathard Community Trust identified social isolation as a challenge affecting all rural areas. RTPI Scotland flagged up issues relating to community capacity and to mental health and wellbeing, and Historic Environment Scotland also identified health and wellbeing issues as a concern.

Similar issues come through in the literature. Responses to the National Council of Rural Advisors’ national consultation repeatedly noted challenges relating to: the availability of childcare and of healthcare services, including inadequate provision of carers; parity of costs such as fuel/heating costs and delivery costs/charges; declining high street services such as post offices and banks, and; declining resources for community spaces that support recreation and connectedness[124]. Some participants in this consultation considered that access issues are important for tackling exclusion and inequality[125].

Participants in the workshops run by the NCRA[126] identified access to childcare as one of the main challenges facing women in rural areas and also for older people (who are increasingly performing caring and childcare roles). Older people also experience particular challenges relating to the closure of public and community services, including local libraries and community centres, and high fuel costs. Higher costs of living associated with food, housing, delivery charges, energy and transport, and the closure of banks and post offices, are issues for lower-income households.

More generally, NCRA workshop participants “felt that good quality local services are crucial to the success of rural communities; stressing their ability to attract new residents to the area and help ensure current communities stay. They stressed the importance of ongoing investment to maintain and improve them, something which they felt was currently lacking”[127]. They also “talked of how a vibrant culture in rural communities can help drive business de­velopment and employment, as well as the retention of residents”[128].

The challenge of ensuring that “all the mix of services and life are kept in communities” was discussed at the 2016 Scottish Rural Parliament, as was equal access to support and services for people with disabilities[129]. The manifesto[130] approved by that year’s Rural Parliament highlighted concerns over education, health and social services, higher costs of living and fuel poverty, and also the “pressing and growing need to develop the capacity of some communities who are finding it harder to lead with confidence”.

Participants in a workshop on NPF4/SPP at the 2018 Rural Parliament identified challenges around health and wellbeing, the ability for older people to stay in their community and the provision of community spaces and venues[131]. Uncertainties over service delivery was also identified at a Rural Planning Summit in September 2018, chaired by Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, and Kevin Stewart MSP, Minister for Local government, Housing and Planning[132].

As Currie has recently put it, the evidence is that “Service delivery in rural areas has distinct challenges to urban areas and for at least seventy years, the underlying trend for rural service provision has been one of decline”[133].

Employment figures for the service industry indicate that some services are becoming centralised, and this may reflect the impacts of austerity policies and demographic changes[134]. This comes on top of other challenges to the delivery and maintenance of services in rural areas, including the greater distances travelled in accessing or delivering services, difficult terrain and weather conditions, low population numbers and densities, ageing populations with proportionately more older people who are more likely to develop long-term health conditions and who may be less able to access help from family members due to their rural location, fewer service providers and challenges recruiting and retaining skilled staff[135].

The lack of access to services in many rural areas can increase the cost of living and also cause disadvantage by not allowing people to participate fully in society[136]. In comparison to those living in urban areas, rural communities can have greater responsibility placed on them to address their service challenges themselves, and this can result in inequalities because communities have different capacity to respond.

The severity and nature of the challenges varies from one type of rural area to another. For example, 91% of people in remote rural areas live within a 15 minute drive time to a GP, compared with 99% in accessible rural areas and 100% of the population in the rest of Scotland. 58% of people in remote areas live within a 15 minute drive time to a secondary school, compared with 92% in accessible areas and 100% in the rest of Scotland[137].

In remote rural areas of Scotland, the budget required by a household to achieve a minimum acceptable standard of living is typically between a tenth and a third higher than in urban parts of the UK, and it can be higher still for those in remote island locations[138]. The additional costs relate to travel, heating, and paying for goods and their delivery. The higher costs are greatest for single people and families with dependent children, but they affect others too. These costs are “making it harder for people of different ages, and across a range of backgrounds to live in rural communities in Scotland, thus threatening their sustainability”[139].

Compared to other rural areas, Sparsely Populated Areas have experienced a more significant fall in employment in the education, public administration, defence and compulsory social security sectors in recent years[140]. The challenge of delivering public and private services in Sparsely Populated Areas has intensified in recent years, due to public sector spending constraints and technological developments, which have affected provision arrangements and people’s expectations with regard to services[141]. Community leaders and service providers have indicated that the three main challenges for service provision are the dispersed and diverse geography of these areas, demographic imbalances and growing financial constraints[142]. These stakeholders have identified a wide range of services that are relevant, but noted that childcare, primary and secondary education, primary health care and care for the elderly are particularly sensitive to population change[143]. Islands face additional challenges due to their reliance on air and ferry links and the consequences for the cost, capacity, frequency and reliability of services[144].

Analysis of the trends in these key sectors, and of broader stakeholder input, suggests that it is helpful to distinguish SPAs from other rural areas in this context, to identify issues that are masked by broader-brush rural typologies, and it also reveals important variations between the different sub-regions of the Scottish Sparsely Populated Area, suggesting that it is important to recognise heterogeneity within the SPA[145].

5.5 Climate Change and Conservation

Climate change was identified as a key challenge by some individuals and some community organisations, businesses and heritage and environment NGOS who responded to the survey. Most of these participants identified climate change as a general concern affecting all rural areas, with potential consequences including changes in land management and impacts on the viability of agriculture, impacts resulting from the increased incidence of extreme weather events such as flooding, and increased resource scarcity and growing social injustice.

Some interviewees – representing the community sector, landed estates and natural and built environment organisations – also raised climate change as a key challenge. Their comments, together with an extensive survey response on this topic from Historic Houses, provide greater insight into concerns regarding the potential impacts of climate change on rural communities, businesses and places in Scotland.

Most interviewees focused on responses to climate change and the changes that those responses will bring about, rather than the direct impacts of climate change itself. One main thread running through the comments is that action must be taken to address climate change, but that this needs to be done in ways that support rather than further undermine the sustainability of communities and businesses.

Euan Leitch, the Director of Built Environment Forum Scotland, emphasised that there is a need to “focus on the right issues” when it comes to addressing climate change, namely ‘carbon issues’ and carbon footprint reduction. He also noted that it is important to consider the link between environmental sustainability and sustaining the population in rural areas:

“For example, if carbon accounting is done on an individual basis, and you have so much to spend, a big part of this could be transport. There is potential for this to discriminate against those in more remote areas, where there might be higher carbon costs for travelling to access services or for delivering services to them. The question is how you would mitigate any prejudices arising from greater carbon costs and that might make living in these areas unsustainable.”

Jon Hollingdale, Chief Executive of the Community Woodlands Association commented:

“The recent Net Zero report suggests that there has to be quite fundamental changes in land use to achieve this goal. This is a challenge for rural communities, especially if not properly resourced.”

Expanding on this, he noted that accounting for carbon costs could be a real challenge for rural communities and that developments of a number of different kinds would be needed in order to address this, including changes to housing, domestic heating, digital connectivity, transport and more general changes to lifestyle.

In their survey response, Historic Houses identified the threat of climate change to the fabric of heritage assets and commented:

“Aside from the general challenges of climate change, there is the more specific challenge of energy efficiency adaptations. While there have been significant steps in the development of technology which can make buildings more energy efficient, the majority of this technology, and the measures proposed to measure carbon usage, have been designed for new-builds. Historic buildings have specific needs which must be taken into account …. sensitive and appropriate [energy efficiency] measures are prohibitively expensive for many owners of listed buildings, who cannot install double glazing and insulation without causing serious harm to the historic fabric.”

Several interviewees raised nature, historic environment and landscape conservation alongside climate change and the sustainability of rural communities, considering these as a trio of key challenges that need to be addressed together:

“There is also the question of balancing the interests of local communities with the historic and natural environment. For instance, there are issues around the insulation of historic buildings and how to manage the balance between conservation and the need to address fuel poverty. There are also tensions around renewables … between landscape issues and the climate emergency.” (Euan Leitch, Director, Built Environment Forum Scotland)

“There is a particular need to ensure that developments are ecologically coherent. They need to meet the three priorities of addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and the needs of rural communities. The role of planning is to balance between these three priorities so that we can make progress on all fronts. Ecological coherence means not just ensuring that development is not environmentally damaging, but that it brings about positive environmental change …. Often development is seen as in conflict with the environment, but we don’t have the luxury for that now …. It is in rural areas that the environmental challenges – and opportunities – will be greatest. Rural communities will be in the vanguard.” (Deborah Long, Chief Officer, Scottish Environment LINK)

The survey responses also evidence concern in relation to conservation issues. Three individuals commented on this, identifying the conservation of Scotland’s natural beauty and amenity as a goal and a challenge, and the need to “keep key habitats from declining further” (anonymous).

Six organisations identified conservation as a challenge in their survey responses. Most identified this as a challenge affecting all rural areas. Some of the survey responses by organisations identify landscape or natural beauty & amenity conservation as a key concern, sometimes in conjunction with tackling climate change and biodiversity loss:

“Protecting valued landscapes from inappropriate development such as housing in Green Belts or wind turbines in Wild Land Areas. Reconciling need to tackle climate change with importance of protecting valued landscapes. Accepting that tourism is the biggest economic driver in rural Scotland, not agriculture, fishing, forestry or field sports. Adjusting to likely decline in subsidies for traditional rural industries. Growth in cross-compliance requirements for subsidies i.e. demonstrating provision of public goods such as landscape enhancement, biodiversity protection and climate change adaptation in addition to food and timber production.” (The Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland (APRS))

RSPB Scotland highlighted the challenge of nature conservation:

“Rural areas of Scotland contain some of our highest quality natural environments. They also contain the most environmentally sensitive areas and development therefore requires careful planning and management …. There are many competing pressures on land use in rural areas … and a balancing-act is required in order to ensure that the natural environment is protected, and to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In order to maintain the quality of Scotland’s rural environment, to ensure not only communities and businesses but also biodiversity thrive, an ecosystem approach should be taken and this should incorporate greater effort for nature conservation following the Lawton principles …. Halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services must be central to how Scotland uses and manages land, and how rural communities develop in future.” (RSPB Scotland)

With particular reference to woodlands, Woodland Trust Scotland commented:

“rural businesses such as forestry, food and drink industry, tourism are underpinned by a high quality of the environment. Therefore … environmental performance is just as, or even more important than economic and social performance …. The Woodland Trust would like to see any further proposed development in NPF4 as having no negative impact on areas of ancient woodland. These areas are irreplaceable and some of the most important for our biodiversity …. As land owners ourselves we … are increasingly concerned with development proposals which may have negative impacts on some of the sites which we own. Such developments threaten the quality of the environment on which our work depends on. The sites we own … offer excellent opportunities for the environment, communities, and tourists alike. These opportunities are economic opportunities through employment, social through offering spaces for recreation, public volunteering opportunities, and environmental protection and enhancement. The policy principles concerned with the promotion of rural development currently in the NPF 3 are good and we welcome the inclusion of environmental protection and enhancement as part of rural development. In this respect a net gain for biodiversity system could be implemented in the planning system.” (Woodland Trust Scotland)

Historic Houses focused on issues relating to the conservation of historic buildings:

“Historic Houses member properties work hard to ensure their heritage assets are economically viable …. For these important parts of Scotland’s heritage to be successful, they need a planning framework that balances sensible heritage protection with the needs of active conservation (the sensitive management of change) and that is not focused solely on preservation …. generating revenue to cover the repair and maintenance of independently owned listed buildings such as Historic Houses places is an increasingly challenging task …. If the barriers to making rural heritage and tourism businesses successful are not addressed, then there is a real risk in the future that nationally important buildings might be lost.” (Historic Houses)

The issues raised by interviewees and survey participants reflect wider understanding of the challenges of climate change and conservation as they relate to rural areas.

At the European level, for example, it has been recognised that some types of rural area are “particularly exposed to impacts of climate change … having very direct economic and environmental effects (e.g. low altitude ski resorts are shut down … additional risks to agriculture and forestry that are very climate-dependent, ecosystem disturbances such as new pests in forests…)”[146].

Also at European level, environmental preservation and protection and the enhancement of cultural and natural heritage have been identified as a particular challenge in mountainous, island and sparsely-populated regions, in response to changes driven by climate change and to the pressures of tourism, especially mass tourism[147]. The nature of the challenge differs from one type of region to another, and across different parts of Europe.

The OECD have identified ‘climate change and environmental pressures’ as one of six ‘mega trends’ that will influence the development of rural areas[148]. Noting the UN Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, and also anticipated pressures on the local environment and on natural resources in rural areas arising from climate change, population growth and development, they identify a need for more efficient resource use, the reduction of carbon emissions and of waste. They argue that:

“Rural regions will be central to harnessing the major global opportunities and meeting the challenges of the 21st century. Rural areas provide valuable eco-system services (e.g. purification of air and water, biodiversity, groundwater recharge, greenhouse gas mitigation) to mitigate and adapt to climate change. New energy sources will need to be developed to meet our climate challenge, too. Productivity and innovation in food production will be needed … and raw materials will be needed to enable the next production revolution. Trade in food and agriculture, mining and resources, forestry, and tourism has always driven the prosperity of rural people; with an increasingly interconnected world, these strengths will be the basis for new products and services to generate rural prosperity and well-being.”[149]

5.6 The Administrative, Policy and Fiscal Environment

Participants in the survey raised a range of challenges relating to the current policy, fiscal and administrative environment, or to anticipated changes in that environment.

The issues raised include the UK’s exit from the European Union, which was identified as a challenge affecting all rural areas by organisations in the community, public, private and charitable sectors. Specific concerns include the impact of leaving the EU on agriculture and inshore fisheries, on employment in those sectors, on the availability of labour and on population levels. Concern was expressed about uncertainty over the future of financial support for rural development and agriculture and over future policies in areas for which the EU currently has a remit.

Similar issues have been identified through workshops run by the National Council of Rural Advisors[150], and through recent research by the James Hutton Institute, which has concluded that “the policy climate has become far more uncertain for all regions after Brexit …. [and] in remote regions of Scotland, leaving the European Union is likely to exacerbate declines in agriculture and land management and lead to further adverse effects on the economy and public goods”[151].

Twelve individual survey participants raised issues relating to the planning system, with most saying these issues affect all rural areas and some stating that they are particularly relevant for remote areas, areas “designated for urban expansion”, islands, coastal areas and “areas hard to reach by road”.

The specific issues raised by these individuals include the need for greater empowerment of communities, equal rights of appeal for communities and the costs for communities of participating in the planning process. They include a perceived need for greater consistency in policy between different planning authorities, and the desire for greater flexibility in the application of policies in order to support the development of businesses and others. Some survey participants questioned the ‘mindset’ of planning policy, arguing that policies have an “urban approach”, see rural areas as places to be protected from development rather than as places where development should be supported, do not sufficiently take into account the needs of rural communities and are also “not keeping up with the new eco sustainable trends”. Housing policies were identified as a particular concern.

Twenty-one organisations identified challenges relating to the current or emerging policy framework and related systems. These organisations include a number of public bodies, businesses, community organisations and associations and environment and heritage NGOs. The challenges they identified include that policy is generally perceived to lack a sufficient rural perspective and is driven by “national agendas” rather than by the needs and distinctive characteristics of Scotland’s diverse rural areas. For example:

“Central to overcoming [the various challenges facing rural areas] is the ability to shape rural development policy which recognises the unique circumstances and sets out an aspirational planning vision for rural Scotland. It is our view that such a vision should include the following sentiment: ‘Rural Scotland should be a diverse place where tradition and innovation coexist. To realise prosperous and thriving rural communities, planning authorities should adopt a flexible approach to enabling appropriate development that encourages more people to live and work there – maintaining a sustainable countryside.’ ‘Scotland’s rural resources have significant and long-term potential as places to live and work. Planning must enable this potential to be realised by working collaboratively across all sectors and delivering the high-quality development that meets the unique requirements of each area.’” (Scottish Land & Estates)

“There needs to be a positive narrative around the contribution that rural Scotland's communities make to the wellbeing of the nation as a whole.” (Dr Calum MacLeod Policy Director, Community Land Scotland)

“Public policy is still largely responding to, rather than leading, the market forces affecting rural Scotland, and is attempting to do so without a clearly developed rural policy (e.g. Norwegian trend to maintaining populations in less accessible areas, compared to Swedish approach of accepting population concentrations). This is evident in current discussions on post-Brexit agricultural/forestry where there isn't an over-arching framework to build on.” (The National Trust for Scotland)

“Local Authorities who cover urban and rural areas need to move away from town centre priorities …” (Northern Corridor Community Volunteers)

“It is vital that the rural, and remote fragile areas are seen as an integral part of Planning Policy nationwide, not merely as an aside …” (Sebastian Tombs, Chair, Lismore Community Trust)

The resourcing of planning departments was also raised as a concern, as was the challenge of achieving good community and stakeholder participation in planning processes. Equal rights of appeal were, again, raised as a specific concern.

“We believe that greater engagement with communities on decisions relating to land-use is necessary to generate positive changes for rural communities and businesses.” (Scottish Land Commission)

Specific financial challenges were noted, including non-domestic rates, a potential ‘tourism tax’ and the ways in which grant and subsidy funds are directed towards agriculture but not to other areas of the rural economy.

A number of our interviewees made comments that chime with the survey results, with a focus on the three issues of an insufficient and inaccurate rural emphasis in policy, on participation in planning and on the links between planning and other policy areas.

On the first issue of how ‘rural’ is dealt with in policy, several community sector interviewees commented that rural business is often equated predominantly with farming, which does not reflect the current place of agriculture in the rural economy. Echoing some of the survey responses, they also argued that planning has an urban focus and mindset, treating rural areas as leisure grounds for urban populations, for example. As a result:

“There has been a loss of confidence in the process, and its disconnected from the issues people face ….” (Angus Hardie, Director, Scottish Community Alliance)

Public sector interviewees raised similar concerns:

“There is too much of a focus on urban-led policy initiatives. Everything seems to be focused on landscapes not people.” (Prof. Russell Griggs, Chair, South of Scotland Economic Partnership)

“National planning policies look at a more urban land use pattern. In rural areas the quantity of available land can be greater but pressure for development is much less, also a significant percentage of housing is delivered via windfall… these factors all contribute to different issues in securing an effective land supply to those in more urban areas. Perhaps National Planning Policy could acknowledge this reality more. ,.” (Suzanne Shearer, Development Planning Sub-Committee Chair, Heads of Planning Scotland)

“Planning has, over the last 50 years, operated on the basis of a default assumption that its approach to rural areas should be a reactive and protectionist one. This has begun to change with a shift to planning having a more proactive role, but this is an ongoing process.” (Hamish Trench, Chief Executive, Scottish Land Commission)

“Scotland is missing out on the economic and environmental impact that rural Scotland can deliver. A missed opportunity. Its not just about overcoming challenges in rural areas, but about taking opportunities that will deliver benefits, not just for rural areas but for Scotland as a whole…. we have such a divide between rural and urban areas. Its about appreciating what rural has to contribute.” (Alison Milne, co-Chair, National Council of Rural Advisors)

A number of interviewees in the community sector commented on the state of participation in the planning process. Comments included that communities feel remote from the planning system and disenfranchised, with little or no opportunity to contribute to policy making and difficulties participating in particular planning decisions. The highly technical nature of planning is perceived as a barrier to engagement with the system, and differences in the financial resources and rights of appeal of developers and communities were raised as a concern.

“One believes people get into planning to make things better, but communities do not necessarily share that vision of better …. Communities might be ambitious regarding the future of their places and planning seems like an obstruction to realising that vision …. We need to look at things from a human rights point of view and equity. Planning policy is not engaging with the human rights discussion and this is a wasted opportunity.” (Amanda Burgauer, Chair, Scottish Rural Action)

A broad range of interviewees – from the community, public and private sectors and from environmental NGOs – argued that planning should have the purpose of helping to deliver on wider societal goals; it is felt that planning is not performing this role adequately because it is not sufficiently connected to those wider agendas. Land reform, improvements in local governance, inclusive growth, environmental enhancement and responding to climate change were all raised as examples of the wider goals that planning should help to achieve. A number of interviewees emphasised that, because planning concerns the development and use of land, it intersects with many different social, economic and environmental issues:

“The connection between planning policy and land reform is that planning policy is about land use. A helpful definition of land reform is given in the Land Reform Review Group report of 2014, which defines land reform as measures that influence land ownership and use. So, planning policy is land reform policy (potentially) because it influences land use.” (Dr Calum MacLeod, Policy Director, Community Land Scotland)

“At the moment, planning deals with some types of land use change but not others. Some types of change (e.g. forestry, land management decisions) don’t come under the planning system. In the long-term, we could reconsider the scope of the planning system in terms of the kinds of land use decisions it covers but, in the more immediate term …. there is an opportunity to at least connect with [these wider land use decisions] through development planning (as opposed to development management) …. Planning should be proactive in setting out what should happen. Planning has tended to take a ‘policy approach’ – meaning that the focus has been on defining in general terms what is and is not acceptable – rather than a pro-active approach of setting out what should happen. National policy and the national framework should set out an expectation regarding the pro-active approach to rural planning that then needs to filter down to local/regional level, where this approach makes most sense.” (Hamish Trench, Chief Executive, Scottish Land Commission)

“We are missing an effective land use strategy at national level and also regional land use strategies/plans …. The planning system is one way we can deliver on wider goals, deciding how and where they should be addressed …. We have not been able to persuade planners of the importance of ecological coherence and of ecosystem services. And ecosystem thinking is not just about the natural but about the ‘built’ as well, the different elements of the system that need to function together in social and economic terms for communities.” (Deborah Long, Chief Officer, Scottish Environment LINK)

These comments echo contributions to the recent national consultation run by the National Council of Rural Advisors, which called for more holistic approaches to planning and greater recognition of rural needs in planning policies and processes[152].

All of this evidence echoes a point made by the OECD in its 2008 review of rural policy in Scotland – that Scotland’s rural policy was, at that time, organised within a set of sectoral silos, with a particular emphasis on agriculture and the environment, and it was weakly integrated with wider policy[153].

5.7 Supply of Land

Participants in the research identified the limited availability of land as a structural barrier to the development that is needed to address the other major challenges outlined above.

Land ownership and availability issues were raised in the survey by 4 individuals and by a range of organisations including community organisations and associations, businesses, public bodies and conservation and outdoor recreation charities.

Most of these organisations raised the availability of land as a challenge and they considered that this challenge affects all rural areas in Scotland. Some organisations also raised similar issues as an opportunity (e.g. identifying the opportunities that stem from community ownership of land); most stated that this opportunity is open to all rural areas, although some emphasised that the opportunity is particular important for remote areas.

One survey participant – Andrew Bradford of Kincardine Estate – commented that:

“land reform ... to some [extent] will be achieved by the fragmentation of large estates. This will be a catastrophe as estates are the major providers of affordable rural rented housing, start-up units, and are often major rural investors bringing in capital from outside rural Scotland to support rural jobs.”

However, the comments of the other participants either explicitly advocated land reform or implied support for reform.

The concentration of land ownership in Scotland was identified as a particular challenge and this was linked with a lack of availability of land for particular kinds of development, such as affordable housing, business facilities and woodlands, or for socially and economically sustainable development more generally. Crofting tenure was also identified as creating difficulties in accessing land for development, as was the lack of clear information about who owns the land.

Adding to the survey results, a number of interviewees raised access to land as a particularly important issue. Some focused on questions of ownership. For instance:

“the combination of land and planning often combine to restrict opportunities. The combination of too few land owners having too few housing sites is not healthy for communities.” (Ronnie MacRae, Chief Executive Officer of the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust)

“Where you have a landowner controlling a large area of land, they are a de facto planning authority …. Communities can be ‘land-locked’ by a single landlord. The landowner will not release land, for affordable housing for example.” (Ian Cooke, Director, Development Trusts Association Scotland)

“an unwillingness to sell or lease land to new farming entrants is stifling growth of the sector. There is a perception that professional advice to landowners is to sit on land, as to engage into any new leasing arrangements is to open the landowner to unnecessary risk.” (Gemma Cooper, Head of Policy Team, NFU Scotland)

“On Eigg, we can provide land for equity sites, for low-cost, self-build. But this is not possible everywhere. The cost of land, the availability of land is crucial. If the cost of the plot is already high, then the cost of the house will be high. Community owners can also retain ownership, which discourages speculation …. There is often no way of accessing land to increase the housing stock. Land is restricted and tends to be held by one landowner.” (Camille Dressler, Chair, Scottish Islands Federation)

“Land availability is a fundamental issue in all of this. Land is the fundamental resource in enabling or not sustainable outcomes to happen. There is a central issue there in terms of the ownership of land and the use of land is one of monopolies. Landowners acting as de facto planning authorities …. A more diversified pattern of landownership has implications in terms of land use and having a more sustainable use of land.” (Dr Calum MacLeod, Policy Director, Community Land Scotland)

In making the above points, Dr MacLeod referred to a recent report by the Scottish Land Commission to Scottish Ministers, on the scale and concentration of land ownership. This report concludes that the “concentration of land ownership has a direct influence on the public interest with potential adverse consequences through the exercise of market and social power and this is amplified by large scale ownership”, and that “there is evidence of the adverse effects of excessively concentrated market and social power being realised and causing significant detriment to the communities affected”[154].

In his interview, Dr MacLeod also looked beyond questions of ownership to make a link between the availability of land and planning policy:

“People conflate land reform with land ownership issues alone, but it is about both ownership and use, and these two things are linked. So, we shouldn’t separate planning policy from the rest. The planning system needs to be nested within this broader land reform frame.”

The link between planning and the availability of land was a thread in other interviews too. For example, Jon Hollingdale, Chief Executive of the Community Woodlands Association stated that:

“Communities that want to buy land have to buy out all the additional values that have been placed on land …. Is planning policy a driver of the poor availability of land? Yes, specifically in relation to land for housing. The system is creating shortages of housing. Those shortages are welcome for some because they keep house prices high – limiting supply is beneficial to some. Planning helps to drive this because it works on the basis of restricting housing.”

Hamish Trench, Chief Executive of the Scottish Land Commission argued:

“There needs to be a more proactive approach to land allocation in rural areas, moving beyond simply responding to private proposals. We need to move beyond the traditional ‘call for sites’, turning this into a much more pro-active approach, such as we’ve seen recently in the National Parks. NPF/SPP can make land allocation more proactive, guided by the public interest, creating a framework that sets the expectation for the approach to be taken in preparing LDPs …. If planning can become more proactive in identifying opportunities, it can become more of an enabler and not exclusively a regulator” (Hamish Trench, Chief Executive, Scottish Land Commission).



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