3. Migration policy for remote and rural areas
The Scottish Government has already articulated the evidence base that illustrates the case for action to support remote and rural areas. This has been made in detail through a number of submissions to the UK Government and Migration Advisory Committee.
As a whole, in 2019, the share of working age population in Scotland’s rural areas was 7 per cent below the Scottish average. These overall population profiles are important, however underneath national statistics, considerable local variation can be found, and in particular a range of acute sustainability challenges that exist in certain remote and rural communities in Scotland. These challenges arise through combinations of critical demographic and labour market shifts (patterns of general ageing, trends of out-migration, and vulnerabilities within particularly shallow labour markets).
The resultant long-term negative impacts of these shifts in affected smaller communities are clear, and according to the James Hutton Institute, carry “serious challenges for economic development”. Fluctuations of skills and labour supply, or long-term inability to attract labour, can carry disproportionately large impacts for these smaller communities for the economy, public services, and for social/community viability. And, as recognised in the UK Government’s Levelling Up White Paper, decline can often become a “self-reinforcing cycle”, wherein places see “a depletion of skills, businesses, finance, and town centres, with communities and town centres declining for decades.” For many of these smaller communities, their economies rely on sectors such as health and social care, hospitality and tourism, and fisheries – all of which often employ large proportion of migrants.
In recent years, experts have advised that the UK immigration system is not effective in supporting flows of migration to remote and very rural places. Existing evidence showed – even prior to Brexit – migrants themselves were already much less likely to move to remote and very rural areas. However, recent emerging analysis from the Migration Observatory / ReWAGE suggests the ending of freedom of movement is creating further barriers for rural and remote geographies where industries have long relied on EU free movement. The evidence illustrating these shifts, combined with new migration solutions emerging internationally, means that now represents an opportune moment for the trialling of a bespoke measure.
How a bespoke measure for remote and very rural communities is designed is now a question for policymakers and experts. Central to any design is the consideration of the interaction between government and the designated local area (or community) in which the intervention would operate. The Levelling Up White Paper indicated “local leaders have lacked the powers and accountabilities to design and deliver effective policies for tackling local problems and supporting local people”. As a result, this proposal suggests a way in which communities and local leaders can be more involved in the process of using immigration to better support development and mitigate against the challenges these smaller economies face.
Migration is not the only solution for smaller communities facing such challenges. However, within a system of policy levers, immigration – and its potential to support growth, development, and resilience – is a crucial component which can be better configured to more closely align with the distinct and varied needs of smaller communities.
More broadly, the Scottish Government is working across portfolios through its Ministerial Population Taskforce to develop a range of initiatives to help tackle depopulation trends, and support communities in maintaining population sustainability across remote and very rural areas. This includes through the delivery of the Housing to 2040 Strategy and the development of the Remote, Rural and Island Housing Action Plan, the upcoming National Planning Framework 4, the National Islands Plan, and the development of an Addressing Depopulation Action Plan, among others initiatives. Any bespoke migration measure must be seen proportionally, as a supporting measure alongside wider policy delivery being undertaken across reserved and devolved levers – and not as a solution in and of itself.
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