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.

Balance: Ensuring Our Population Is More Balanced And Distributed Across Scotland So All Our Communities Can Flourish

What does the evidence tell us?

Population change is important at a local as well as a national level and our national position masks significant local divergence. Some of our communities are facing significant population growth while many others, notably the west coast authorities and those in rural areas are facing depopulation as people move to larger towns and cities for employment and education opportunities. Migration is heavily concentrated amongst younger people leading to increasingly ageing population in some communities. 

Our focus in this programme is on population balance and the sustainable distribution of our population in a way that works with the characteristics of our places and local ambitions for change. We recognise that both rapid population growth and depopulation can bring challenges. Much of the population growth in certain parts of Scotland is driven by people moving within Scotland. Focusing on retaining and attracting people to some of the areas of our country most at risk of depopulation can therefore also help to reduce some of the pressure on those communities facing population growth.

Without intervention, fourteen of our local authorities are expected to experience a decrease in population over the next 10 years with most of those being located in the west and south-west of the country. This creates skill shortages, threatens community ssstainability and puts pressure on public services. The pace and scale of population change differs across communities and similarly there is no single solution that will apply for all communities.

While rural depopulation is an important issue this issue cannot be seen solely through a rural/urban prism as a number of local authorities in west, such as Argyll and Bute, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire are experiencing population decline. As with rural areas decline is the result of both negative natural change and negative net migration with relatively low levels of international migration and higher levels of out-migration. Some of our rural areas, including islands and the coasts, may experience further challenges arising from climate change and longer-term projections of coastal flooding require a planned, risk-based approach.

For those areas that are dealing with an increase in the population this brings its own significant challenges in providing the infrastructure and services – housing, education, transport and health – to support this increased population. A lot of this increase is concentrated in those authorities within commuting distance of Edinburgh. This highlights the important economic drivers of population change and also the potential of changing working patterns with an increase in home working breaking that commuting distance link and challenging the assumption that past patterns and demand will continue. 

Addressing our population and demographic concerns is a National Challenge which is shared by national and local government and partner organisations. If we are to address that challenge and achieve our vision of ensuring that Scotland's population is more balanced and distributed across the country then we need to address the issues which drive migration: access to jobs and economic opportunities; access to education and infrastructure including housing, digital and transport as well as access to services and open spaces. We also need to plan the location of our future homes and consider the extent to which we can intervene more proactively through the planning system to achieve better outcomes for communities and places both locally and nationally.

Figure 15: Projected change in population due to natural change and net migration, mid-2018 to mid-2028
Figure illustrates the projected percentage change of both net migration and natural change in each council area’s population and whether these are contributing to a population increase or decrease

These issues are interconnected and there is no single solution which will work for all areas. In shaping national responses we also need to recognise the critical importance of the influence of folks' local surroundings. Creating and celebrating great places for all generations and all families to live well and flourish locally would seem to lie at the heart of retaining and attracting people. A sense of place arises from living in an environment which is relevant to individual circumstances and easy to navigate and identify with. Demonstrating on a daily basis what it means to live in a welcoming Scotland.

COVID-19 impacts 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis first and foremost, but it has created an economic crisis, reshaping our economy, the way we work and the structure our lives. The Scottish Government has published an Economic Recovery Implementation Plan to support a jobs focused recovery. Our GDP fell significantly during the first lockdown, and we recognise many of our businesses have struggled to recover due to the introduction of COVID restriction levels. There is a real risk that without intervention COVID-19 could increase inequality with key sectors and areas being particularly exposed.

The economic impacts of COVID-19 have been felt more starkly in some sectors than in others. These include tourism, hospitality and agriculture which are key economies, particularly in rural areas.

The impact of COVID-19 is not limited to our rural areas. As home working remains the norm for the coming months, footfall on our high streets has fallen, impacting our retail and hospitality sectors. It is important to consider our town centre regeneration and how we use our high streets more intuitively so we avoid the disappearance of our town centres.

The economic crisis does though provide an opportunity to reimagine Scotland. Through our recovery plan there is a clear focus on supporting economic recovery but also how we begin building a greener, fairer and more equal society.

The shift in working patterns with a significant increase in home working has for many changed the way in which they think about travelling to work. This provides opportunities to attract and retain people in areas that were facing depopulation. However, this is dependent on the necessary infrastructure being in place to support remote working. It allows an opportunity to consider issues around access to housing and ensuring we have the infrastructure in place to both attract and retain people in some of our more rural communities. 

Economy and jobs

Access to high quality economic opportunities and jobs is a key driving factor in sustaining and driving population change. If we are to deliver our aspiration to support communities that means an inclusive and sustainable economy across our communities with training and skills to support people in accessing opportunities.

This means we must see economic investment in all parts of Scotland. We need each of our local authorities to be fully functioning economic units with a wide range of both highly skilled and specific sector jobs, support for business creation and growth, as well as opportunities within the public sector and other industries. The change in work patterns with increasing levels of home working as a result of COVID-19 and increased use of digital opportunities does present increased opportunities but only if the necessary infrastructure is in place.

Mobilising private investment alongside public investment is a critical part in focusing our economic recovery on building a better, greener and more resilient future. Our economy must transition to address the complex challenges of the 21st Century: transitioning to Net Zero, achieving a Just Transition, generating productivity growth; and responding to both technological and demographic change. 

Current Scottish Government Policies and Programmes which focus on ensuring that all parts of Scotland are able to share in Scotland's economic success. 

  • We have launched the Scottish National Investment Bank, which opened for business in November 2020 – the single biggest economic development in the history of the Scottish Parliament. The Bank's mission-oriented approach directs its investment towards addressing the major challenges that Scotland faces. The three proposed 'missions' that we set to the Bank focus on tackling the climate emergency, investing in place-based opportunities, and harnessing demographic change. 
  • Our Inward Investment Plan focusing on nine opportunity areas where specific regions of Scotland can demonstrate an international comparative advantage mapped to strong global demand. 
  • Continuing to strive to be a wellbeing economy delivering good quality jobs in a way that enhances the quality of life for all and delivering a net zero economy. A key principle to this commitment is ensuring all people feel the benefits of our economy and taking a Community Wealth Building approach will help deliver bespoke solutions that support local people and economies across Scotland to thrive.
  • National Planning Framework 4 will provide a long-term spatial plan to guide our future development. Planning at all scales is based on an understanding of future population change, and local development plans will continue to play a key role in responding to challenges and opportunities for growing our communities.
  • Our forthcoming Capital Investment Plan seeks to consider the impact of Capital Investment, not just on traditional economic measures such as GDP and productivity indicators, but also on Wellbeing and against our net zero targets.
  • The National Islands Plan has a clear focus on addressing population decline and ensuring a healthy, balanced population profile.
  • We are investing £1.9 billion in city region and regional growth deals to spread the benefits of economic growth across the country.
  • Our Future Skills Action Plan is focused on improving the provision of lifelong learning and enabling people to reskill either later in life or within emerging sectors, such as the green economy.
  • The Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland 2019-21 sets out the key issues and priority actions to ensure that employers have access to the skilled workforce that they need and that individuals can maximise the opportunities in their locality.


Infrastructure touches the lives of every person in Scotland – from the homes we live in, to the water and energy we consume to how we travel to the places we shop, work and learn. If we are to meet our ambitions to support communities across Scotland then we need to consider issues around access to suitable and affordable housing; planning; transport access and infrastructure and digital connectivity.

Digital connectivity is crucial for employers, for businesses and for individuals. The shift to remote working for many as a result of COVID-19 presents opportunities for those currently living in areas at risk of depopulation to attract new people to those communities. However, such a shift can only be sustained if the necessary digital infrastructure is in place. 

As well as digital connectivity, physical mobility and spatial proximity are also important. In our cities and towns, good public transport links are crucial, not only to enable people to go to work but also to access services and education, while in rural communities, good connectivity not only provides those same links, but can also help address social isolation, particularly for those in our older population. COVID-19 has impacted our transport sector creating greater uncertainty on the future demand for transport and uncertainty on travel behaviour, and we are currently considering what changes this may have for our public transport in the future.

Access to jobs is clearly an important factor but that needs to be supported by access to housing. In our areas experiencing population growth, we continue to build more homes, but the housing market can make it difficult for young people or those with fewer resources to be able to purchase homes in these areas, increasing reliance on the private rented sector. Competition and strong demand for land for housing tends to focus on a small number of areas, whilst other areas find it difficult to draw in investment in new homes as a result of lack of established market demand. 

Areas of population decline experience problems as housing developments are less likely in these areas without the economic investment alongside. In addition, certain areas, particularly tourist hotspots, can see high numbers of short-term lets that can cause problems for neighbours and make it harder for local people to find homes to live in. This is a key area for future policy thinking. We need to ensure we are continuing to make best use of existing housing stock and improving the quality where necessary while meeting housing need and demand as well as supporting regeneration and finding ways to encourage private sector housing in all areas – not just in high demand areas.

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing tensions between short-term lets and local residents in some areas and highlighted the need for regulation. We are introducing a licensing scheme and control area regulations which will come into force on 1 April 2021, giving local authorities the powers they need to strike the right balance between the economic and tourism benefits of short-term lets and the needs and concerns of their local communities. 

Current Scottish Government Policies and Programmes which focus on infrastructure 

  • The Infrastructure Investment Plan sets out a clear vision for our future infrastructure – to support and enable an inclusive net zero emissions economy. 
  • A new approach to national planning policies in National Planning Framework 4, together with a long-term spatial strategy that aims to bring together our future housing developments with the services and facilities that communities need The Place Principle was adopted by Scottish Government and COSLA as a basis for collaborative working to ensure that future local investment is relevant to local communities for the benefit of local people.
  • Community Wealth Building (CWB) builds on the place principle, and looks to reorganise our local economies in a way that maximises opportunities for local people and businesses.
  • We are introducing a licensing scheme and control area regulations on short-term property lets.
  • Our Affordable Housing Supply Programme (AHSP) is supporting the delivery of affordable housing across urban and rural areas of Scotland.
  • We are continuing to implement the measures in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.
  • Applying the concept of 20 minute neighbourhoods to strengthen the functionality of town and city centres for now and the future.
  • The CAN DO Places programme supports community groups in identifying and establishing local enterprise hubs, regenerating local spaces as community assets and bases for business start-up.
  • Building on the success of the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme we will ensure that everyone in Scotland will have access to superfast broadband by the end of 2021. 
  • Investment to improve rural 4G mobile coverage through the Scottish 4G Infill (S4GI) programme.
  • The National Transport Strategy sets the strategic framework within which investment decisions will be made with the on-going second Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2) considering the strategic transport interventions needed – to support delivery of the strategy. The strategy highlights the need for the those living in rural, remote or island communities to be well connected including to making a positive contribution to maintaining and growing the populations in these areas. 
  • Review of Town Centre Action Plan which is developing a new vision for the future of our towns. The review, to be published in January 2021, provides an opportunity to rethink and re-energise our efforts to develop healthier, greener and inclusive towns that support communities to thrive.

Public services

Declining population levels can impact on the sustainability of public services. A more dispersed population impacts on the costs of delivering certain services while reductions in the working age population can make it more difficult to recruit and retain people to deliver public services. Yet the risk is that if public services are reduced in the face of cost and staffing pressures that can make it more difficult to maintain population. For families access to childcare and education can be key factors in determining whether to locate to a specific community. 

This means we must think about how we deliver our public services going forward. Digital technologies and transformation can support the delivery of public services remotely, for example NHS Near Me video consultations within the health service, so we must consider future technologies now to make our communities of the future sustainable.

  • Current Scottish Government Policies and Programmes which focus on ensuring that our public services meet the needs of all our population
  • As set out in the Christie Commission services need to be driven by local need. We are committed to public sector reform occurring at a local level through community empowerment as set out in our Local Governance Review which we launched jointly with COSLA in 2019. 
  • We are committed to continuing our Democracy Matters conversations in 2021 with communities on the future of local decision-making and we will ensure the aims of the population programme are weaved through this work.
  • We offer incentives for people to work in public sector jobs in areas that have recruitment issues. For example, the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (SCNT) allows local authorities to increase the salary for teachers working in rural areas if necessary. GPs can receive a one-off lump sum payment if they take up a post in a rural or deprived area. This incentives help to drive recruitment in these sometimes difficult to recruit to areas.

What more needs to be done?

While significant action is being taken across Scottish Government and partner organisations to address the population and demographic challenge at a local level, this is a long-term challenge. 

All of the different interventions and policies need to work together to ensure that all of our communities in Scotland are able to attract and retain people. On page 6 we set out our shared vision for change and the principles that will need to guide us to secure that change.

Our focus in this programme is less on dealing with the impact of population change but rather focusing on the actions that need to be put in place to shift that change. Ensuring that Scotland's population is more balanced across the country means exploring the significant structural changes that are needed to support attraction and retention in those areas that are losing people and thereby reduce the pressure on areas dealing with a significant growth in population.


Our Economic Recovery Implementation Plan includes actions for Scottish Government to pivot to a more distributed regional model to address economic recovery, deploy tax powers to drive recovery and support a renewed focus on place-based initiatives. These actions will be key in supporting our economy as it deals with the impact of COVID and Brexit. Through the work of the population programme, we will champion the call for regional models for economic development with wellbeing, sustainability, and fair work at its heart and ensure place is at the forefront of all government developments.

Place must be at the centre of how we address our demographic challenges but also how, in the post-pandemic recovery, we enable our communities to continue to become stronger and more resilient. Through our Place Based Investment Programme, we have committed from 2021 to investing £275 million to support community-led regeneration and town centre revitalisation, including the repurposing of buildings, maintenance and repairs, reallocating external space and community-led land and asset acquisition. The programme will prioritise investment in disadvantaged areas and reduce inequalities, supporting our aim is to make communities across Scotland attractive places to live, work, bring up families and to move to; so that Scotland's population profile improves sustainable and inclusive economic growth and wellbeing.

The Clyde Mission initiative is an example as it seeks, through deep collaboration with local, regional and national partners, to make the Clyde an engine of sustainable and inclusive growth for the region and the country. The Scottish Government has committed over £11 million of capital funding to support projects which can drive economic recovery within the Mission footprint in 2020-21, and a further £25 million over the coming parliament for zero carbon energy infrastructure and heat networks for residential and commercial premises along the river's path. 

The Clyde Mission footprint includes sections of some of the local authorities most severely impacted by depopulation. The revitalisation of the economy on and around the river Clyde, which is a critical employment base in those areas, can support job opportunities which can provide an anchor for the younger population.

We recognise COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on our economy. We need to minimise the risk that these economic changes will entrench and deepen the population disparity between our communities. 


We will ensure that our housing strategy supports our population ambitions. In March 2021 we will publish our Housing to 2040 vision and route map to set out our long-term objectives for the housing sector for the next Parliament and beyond. This will adopt a whole-systems approach to housing that takes into account the people, place, environment and communities in which our homes, both new and old, rural, urban and island, are located. 

We recognise self-build is an important element of future housing supply even more so in rural Scotland and the Islands where it can often be the only form of new housing. It can give people greater choice and flexibility about where and how they live, helping to create and sustain thriving communities, support home-working and creating homes that are high-quality, energy efficient and affordable. 

We will therefore work with the sector to make self-build a mainstream delivery option for homes building through the work of the Self and Custom Build Challenge Fund pilots. We plan to evaluate current mechanisms we have in place to assist self-build, such as the national Self-Build Loan Fund, to ensure that government intervention is targeted to be as effective as possible.

Depopulation is not solely a rural issue but many of our rural and island communities are facing the pressures of a declining and ageing population. We are committed to developing an action plan specifically to support repopulation of these communities and will work with partners to identify barriers and test approaches using small scale pilots. 

Planning and housing

Planning, at national, regional and local levels, plays a key role in considering the spatial implications of population change, proactively shaping future land use. Planning is about much more than regulating development proposals – it can set out a clear long-term vision for a place and co-ordinate action in a way that directly tackles geographic advantages and disadvantages.

Development planning in Scotland has a long history, and we can build on the system's considerable experience of understanding and responding to population and household change to realise the aims of this strategy. Planning can co-ordinate future development that will shape, improve and protect existing places and determine where people will choose to live their lives. In the coming years, firstly the new National Planning Framework 4 and subsequent local development plans will support collective action by taking a strategic approach across the wide range of issues, including but not limited to housing, climate change, health, education, and transport. By guiding development to the right locations, the planning system can actively encourage people to live in areas where change is needed to help maintain the viability of local infrastructure. Planning can also manage pressures on infrastructure arising from high demand for new homes, enabling good quality development in a way that is sustainable and reflects the needs of existing communities alongside new residents. 

We are continuing to drive forward planning reform that will improve the way we plan our future places and help to deliver on the aims of this strategy. As a result of the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019, the National Planning Framework is now required to support rural repopulation and to give a clearer steer on the homes that will be required in the future to meet the long-term needs of our changing population. The new legislation introduces similar requirements for local development plans. We expect to lay a draft National Planning Framework in the Parliament this autumn for scrutiny and public consultation. We are developing regulations and guidance on local development plans, with a view to the new system being in place, together with the finalised National Planning Framework 4, by summer 2022. We are also working with planning authorities to explore the new duty to prepare regional spatial strategies that address strategic planning issues and will issue draft statutory guidance later this year. 

This ambitious programme of planning reform, supported by our investment in the digital transformation of the system, will help us to focus on improving the quality of our places, as well as involving more people in shaping their future places. We expect that development plans at all scales will reflect the views of local people to define how areas should change in the future. It is important that our local government partners consider planning as a key strategic tool to understand, and respond, to population change in collaboration with local communities to reflect local need and ambition. The introduction of regulations and guidance on local place plans this year, as well as guidance on mediation in the planning system and statutory guidance on effective community engagement, will also help to achieve this.

In addition, Housing to 2040 will deliver more homes at the heart of great places including through the continued delivery of the Affordable Housing Supply Programme in the next Parliamentary term. We will continue to work closely with local authorities and others in ensuring a robust approach to the planning and delivery of homes to ensure that it is informed by demographic trends and housing needs and is planned alongside the infrastructure and services that communities need. 

As set out in the 2020-21 Programme for Government, we will take action to improve the quality of the homes delivered through the affordable housing supply programme. We will introduce guidance to ensure homes provide access to outdoor space and space for home working and learning and require these improved standards be met in exchange for government funding. These changes will help to support improved health and wellbeing and support children's learning.

In addition to the delivery of more affordable homes over the lifetime of the next Parliament, we will recognise the importance of putting homes at the heart of places, recognise the vital links between housing and planning, set out ambitions to support independent living and supporting local authorities to respond to housing need and demand priorities in their area.

Public services

Through our Economic Recovery Implementation Plan, Scottish Enterprise are shifting to a more regionally focused place-based model for economic development by the end of 2022. Initially working with three regional economies (Glasgow and Clyde, Ayrshire and the North East) to demonstrate the value of more regionally focussed collaboration. This is in addition to the excellent regional work already carried out by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise and South of South Enterprise who also have a role to play going forward.

At the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (COHI) in October 2019, the Scottish Government committed to undertake a strategic consideration of its workforce footprint and consider the opportunities of a more location neutral workforce. While this work commenced before COVID-19, the increased prevalence of remote working offers opportunities for us to consider this in greater detail and we commit to do so. 

It is now a decade since the publication of the Christie Commission and while we have achieved much in the reform of public services, we must do more. As already mentioned, we are intending to continue our Democracy Matters consultation in 2021 and we will consider what learning we must still do a decade on from the Christie report.

Remote Working

While not a new concept, remote working has become a way of life for many of us in the post-COVID world, and as restrictions continue, the prospect of a future where things go back to the office-based format of the past is looking increasingly unlikely. COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed the landscape of working forever. 

The transition to remote working is prompting many to think about their relationship to work and specifically how that impacts on decisions about where they live. This brings opportunities and challenges. There is already emerging evidence that the shift to remote working is prompting some people to look to move. 

This represents an opportunity to support a broader rebalancing of the population. However, there are certain requirements that need to be in place to support such a shift and also some risks that we need to consider. This shift is very dependent on access to digital infrastructure and to services – many of the issues that we have already identified as key to attracting and retaining people. There is also a risk that an increase in people moving to some communities can increase pressure on access to affordable housing. It is important therefore that there is a continuing focus on the infrastructure that is needed to both attract and retain people within communities.

Through our Inward Investment Plan, we are already committed to focus our efforts on promoting Scotland as a global leader in the creation of a supportive environment for remote working, but we must tackle this challenge with both hands.

We will consider the opportunities for community work hubs which could allow for a number of employers, both public and private sector, to co-locate in disused building in our town centres. This would not only provide workspaces for those people who are struggling with remote working in small properties but also still provide the social aspect of office working. This can also help our town and city centres improve economically with increased footfall once again.

Through our Work Local Challenge Programme, we will be carrying out socio-economic analysis to explore the opportunities available for future home-working, including the possible creation of co-located local work hubs situated in our disused buildings in our town centres. However, we recognise that not all workers can work remotely, and so, whatever options we pursue must take into account all sectors.

Anchor Institutions

Local anchor institutions, whether public, private or third sector are very important to the areas they are located in. Given the large amount of investment they oversee, how and from where they purchase goods and services, who they employ, and how they invest in their local communities can have a very significant impact on how wealth is created and shared across the country. 

Anchor institutions are defined as large, typically non-profit organisations whose long-term sustainability is tied to the wellbeing of the populations they serve. Hospitals, schools and universities are typical examples of these institutions as they can be large employers, particularly in our smaller towns, and we must consider how we use these organisations to better balance our population. We have already seen positives with the establishment of the South of Scotland Enterprise Agency which has recruited a number of local people, but we have the opportunity to do more. The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is the only academic institution that is not based in one of our cities and that then drives our younger populations to them. That is not a bad thing as it is important for our young people to experience life away from home, but we must consider how we offer more opportunities to people who return home once they have completed their studies? and think how those opportunities can be more evenly spread.

All of our public sector partners, including local authorities, must consider their role as anchor institutions locally, but also how to work together collaboratively, sharing services when necessary. This can reap a number of benefits from finding efficiencies through the use of shared services to better use of land and estate to better the local community and shortening supply chains which helps in reaching our climate change targets. There is also the opportunity to consider attracting staff to work in our communities through collaborative recruitment, something we already do within our NHS.

We have to ensure we use all levers at our disposal to maximise the role of public investment in creating new opportunities for businesses to establish and grow, and for job opportunities accessed by local people and the benefits of the growth to be shared. To do this it will be important to support more local and socially orientated suppliers to bid for public sector contracts and ensure more tailored community benefits deliver more for our local communities. We should also explore how employability and business start-up support can encourage the development of SMEs, cooperatives and other inclusive business models as a means of pre-distributing wealth and delivering wellbeing. 

Tied to this, the private sector also has a role to play in ensuring investment is spread across our country. Our inward investment plan hopes to achieve this but we hope this paper allows both public sector and private companies to better consider the impact of their economic investment on local demographics before investing in particular areas.

Balance: Summary of Actions
# Action Action for
21 We will champion the call for regional models of economic development and recovery and ensure place is at the forefront of all Government developments Scottish Government and Enterprise Agencies
22 We will work with the housing sector to make self-build homes a mainstream delivery option Scottish Government with housing sector
23 We will continue to drive forward planning reform to improve how we plan our future places and support local government in considering planning as a strategic tool to respond to population change Scottish Government and Local Authorities
24 We will actively consider the Scottish Government's workplace footprint and explore opportunities to distribute our workforce across the country Scottish Government 
25 We commit to considering the Christie Commission a decade on and ensuring our public services are fit to serve our population for now and in the future Scottish Government
26 We will consider community work hubs for people to work in who may no longer need to work in offices every day, but to reduce the impact of home working Scottish Government and Local Authorities
27 We will consider the role of our anchor institutions and national partners and ensure their work is aligned to the population programme Scottish Government and Local Authorities with anchor institutions
28 We will explore opportunities to support Local Authorities in the short-term deal with the demographic pressures of the present Scottish Government and Local Authorities


Email: population@gov.scot

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