A Scotland for the future: opportunities and challenges of Scotland's changing population

Scotland’s first national population strategy, framing the diverse and cross-cutting demographic challenges that Scotland faces at national and local level, and setting out a programme of work to address these challenges and harness new opportunities.

Our Vision For A Future Scotland

By its size, its balance of ages, by how we are spatially spread, Scotland's national and local populations are crucial pillars for our sustainable future. Across our cities, towns, villages, rural and island areas, our population stands at a record high of 5.46 million people. Yet, underneath this record high, exist very real and significant threats to our future as a nation.

In 2019, the Scottish Government established a Ministerial Population Taskforce to consider Scotland's future population challenges. The Taskforce is chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture and brings together Ministers from across the Scottish Government to deliver a coherent focus on the interventions which are needed to address our population challenges.

This paper, A Scotland for the Future, is the product of major work carried out by the Taskforce. It sets out the complex and multi-dimensional demographic challenge before us. 

It first tells the story of Scotland's population – the journey that brought us to this stage, and future population projections. As we look forward, we see a Scotland with an ageing population, falling fertility rates, with future population growth dependant on inward migration. We also see a precariously balanced Scotland, with depopulation threatening some of our areas particularly across the Islands and in the West, and rapid population growth in others, predominantly in the East. 

To frame these different dimensions within our long-term demographic challenge, this paper lays down four thematic building blocks. These blocks are: 

  • A family friendly nation
  • A healthy living society
  • An attractive and welcoming country
  • A more balanced population

Within each building block, we connect together the major and ambitious actions we are already developing and delivering which address Scotland's demographic issues (across economic development, health and social care, infrastructure and connectivity, migration, education and beyond...) These are reminders that, as we set out to address our population challenges and maximise our opportunities, we do not start with a blank page. 

However, the four building blocks are not only mechanisms to map our existing work. They are also mechanisms to frame our horizon, chart our next steps, open new cross-cutting conversations, identify opportunities to build on our strengths and do more to address our challenges as we take the work further. Addressing population change is a long-term ambition which will require sustained and cohesive actions across a wide range of policy areas. It is therefore important – at the outset of our Population Programme – to identify a number of principles that underpin our vision as it develops. 

Scotland's Demographic Challenge: What is our vision?

Delivering this vision will require an agile, whole-system and sustained government response. This is why our outlook for Scotland's population and demographic changes are set within the context of the Scottish Government's National Performance Framework (NPF).

The NPF sets out a long-term vision of the kind of Scotland we want to see, through its National Outcomes, Purpose and Values. It is Scotland's 'Wellbeing Framework' - explicitly including 'increased wellbeing' as part of its purpose, and combining measurement of economic progress with a broader range of wellbeing measures.

Figure 1: Scotland's National Performance Framework
Figure illustrates the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework

The NPF belongs to the whole of Scotland, recognising that government on its own cannot deliver those broad societal outcomes, and that it requires the public sector, businesses, civil society and communities to take this work forward. It promotes partnership working by making organisations jointly responsible for planning and spending to achieve shared outcomes. 

The NPF sets out not just what we want to achieve but how we want to get there. Its values will guide an approach to developing a population policy that:

  • treats all people with kindness, dignity and compassion;
  • respects the rule of law; and
  • acts in an open and transparent way.

Population and demography are at the heart of the NPF. The core purpose is to create a more successful country with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish through increased wellbeing and sustainable and inclusive economic growth. 

In addition, due to the scale, breadth, and complexity of our demographic challenge, our approach is – and must continue to be – a deeply collaborative one. Together, our Population Programme brings together national and local government, partner organisations, as well as academics, government analysts, and the National Records of Scotland. We are committed to widening and extending our engagement to bring together all of those with an interest in this crucial issue.

We recognise that this will require long-term transformation and will require strategic thinking about changes to policies for the years to come. This document begins the conversation but is by no means the end of the discussion. However, we also recognise that urgent action is needed now to help our communities. Within this paper, we have identified a number of actions that we commit to act upon, both in the short and longer-term. These include:

Taking a place-based approach to demography

Place must be at the centre of the answer to our demographic challenge. The economy, infrastructure, housing and public services are all driven by taking a place-based whole-system approach. This paper is the start of threading together these areas into one cohesive approach.

We commit to explore opportunities around our anchor institutions, ensure our economic development is regionally targeted and our housing supply, transport links and public services are fit for purpose across all of Scotland.

Considering the impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 has impacted our lives in ways we could not have imagined. We must ensure that our communities that were already experiencing health and wealth inequalities are supported now, more than ever, to become vibrant and sustainable communities.

We commit to continue to support these communities, but we must also explore the consequences of the pandemic. We will look at improving opportunities around remote working, the creation of community work hubs and the Scottish Government's own workplace footprint.

Attracting people and business to Scotland

Inward migration is currently the sole reason for Scotland's population growth and is projected to be so in years to come. We must ensure that growth is not impacted by the UK Government's new immigration system.

We commit to continuing to push for a migration system that works for Scotland, developing evidence-based, deliverable policy proposals working in partnership to deliver solutions. In addition to seeking to attract people from the EU and internationally we will also continue to attract those from elsewhere in the UK who may wish to make Scotland home.

Working with our partners

Scottish Government cannot deliver this change on its own. We commit to work with our national partners (within both the public and private sector) and local government to explore options to address both national and local demographic challenges. We also call on the UK Government to work with us in areas of reserved matters, such as migration and parental leave, which can help influence change.

Building a programme of engagement

As this is just the start of the programme, we commit to engaging with all parts of Scottish society, from private sector to the third sector; from academic institutions to the public, we will build a programme of engagement, both here and abroad, to ensure the interventions being taken are the right ones for our economy, public services and our communities.

The full list of actions we commit to can be found on page 85 (Next Steps).

These actions must be delivered in partnership. The Scottish Government and our local government partners recognise population and demography is a national challenge and therefore, we commit to addressing this national challenge collaboratively to make a better Scotland for all our futures.

The paper is structured as follows: the initial chapters set out Scotland's population story, and why demography and population change are crucial to our future. The following four chapters focus individually on each of the building blocks of the Programme, setting out the actions already taken, and where more must be done. Finally, we set out our plans for opening up more conversations about Scotland's changing population and continuing to develop our evidence base. 


Email: population@gov.scot

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