Supporting and enabling sustainable communities: action plan to address depopulation

This Action Plan newly establishes a strategic policy position for Scottish Government around addressing depopulation and maps a range of new and existing supportive activity being undertaken across Scottish Government and by local and regional delivery partners.

04 Defining how we address depopulation

Within any geographical area, populations do not remain fixed over the longer term. This is true in Scotland as much as anywhere else in the world. Throughout its history, Scotland’s populations have shifted in size and location, influenced by short and long-term macroeconomic forces and historical trends, and changes in political and policy environments.

This Action Plan will not seek to set out a restoration of population profiles to historic levels, because focusing solely on this risks failing to understand the drivers and change that has led to depopulation.

Instead, we will map the policy landscape which we understand to be influencing depopulation, defining the role of those policies in terms of how they can support these communities, and we will set out a delivery-focused approach which responds to current challenges. This will aim to create the conditions to enable more stable patterns of population retention and attraction within communities and ensure that we do not set ‘fascinating goals’ which are ‘impossible to achieve’[3] such as choosing an arbitrary historical date and committing to restoring local populations to that level. It will not set out a specific Scottish Government objective for any given geographic area in terms of future population numbers, nor will it set out whether an area should aim for specific outcomes. Instead, it will set out our support for interventions which are appropriately place-based and/or person-centred, with communities enabled and supported to thrive, where appropriate setting their own objectives and delivery models with regard to population. This approach will also inform our approach to evaluation, set out within the section on Measuring Success, below.

Rothesay port and Wemyss bay, Isle of Bute

With regard to this Action Plan, addressing depopulation is defined as:

1. Identifying a spectrum of factors relevant to depopulation at community level

2. Showcasing the current and future role of regional and local actors (including local authorities, enterprise agencies, regional groups, the third sector and community groups) in delivering a collaborative set of interventions to support communities, economies and public services to flourish

3. Setting out the role which the Scottish Government will play at a national level in supporting communities’ local objectives

As part of addressing depopulation policy, we must also recognise that communities’ local objectives and the interventions that enable communities, economies and public services to flourish may broadly fall within three themes:

1. Addressing population decline

2. Growing existing population (including growing specific demographics e.g. working age)

3. Reintroducing people to areas that had previously been populated (“repeopling”)

The reintroduction of people to areas that had previously been populated will require considerable policy and delivery coordination. However, many examples of sustainable, successful approaches to “repeopling” exist such as the settlements of Fernilea, Fiskavaig or Portnalong in Skye. This area of Skye now possesses “a substantial population” with “several (mostly tourism-related) businesses, a community hall and other facilities... activity, traffic, enterprise”.[4]

Drumbeg, Sutherland

4.1 Drivers of depopulation

It is understood that there are differing primary drivers influencing depopulation in rural and island areas versus the specific instances of depopulation occurring in urban areas in Scotland, and that while there may be similarities present between outcomes in depopulating communities, the factors and their specific local impact can often be uniquely experienced from one community to another. A wide range of these factors identified to us by stakeholders during the development of this Action Plan are highlighted within the chapter about the Scottish Government’s national response to this challenge.

Perceived peripherality has been articulated to us by stakeholders to be an underpinning driver of depopulation in rural and island communities, meaning that distance from perceived economic and employment opportunity, and public services, is often noted as part of why people may choose to leave an area, or not move to it. This Action Plan is clear that these communities contribute greatly to Scotland, both socially and economically, and their sustainability is intrinsic to delivering the Scotland that we all want to see. Whilst the primary focus for addressing depopulation is to ensure that communities have the required infrastructure, services and opportunities to flourish, language also plays a considerable role. The terminology that is adopted when referring to rural and island communities can either help to challenge the perception of peripherality, or it can perpetuate it. References to communities as “remote” risk entrenching attitudes that people need to “get out to get on”, and portrays areas as lacking in people, culture and enterprise. We know this not to be true – rural and island parts of Scotland are filled with opportunity and these areas contribute hugely to Scotland’s success.

As such, with only minor exceptions when it provides a statistical, and very specific role, such as the Urban-Rural Classification Index, the Scottish Government will no longer refer to rural and island communities as “remote”. We will also continue to consider research into new ways of understanding and referring to rurality such as the James Hutton Institute’s work on Sparsely Populated Areas.

Economic conditions, including the long-term effects of deindustrialisation, are more closely linked to depopulation occurring in select urban areas, with identification of a need for favourable business conditions and aligned local skills provision to address population decline within these areas. Therefore, we know that we have to target our action depending on the needs of places, and that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to addressing this challenge.

With the strategic ambition of ensuring that communities, economies and public services are enabled to flourish across Scotland, in line with the reality of what we know these areas offer, this Action Plan will set out a broad range of factors and drivers which we have identified as resulting in depopulation, and set out the action which the Scottish Government, partners, and communities will seek to take to address these challenges in the future.

4.2 Why we want to address depopulation

We want to address population decline because we understand the value of our communities and their economies in contributing to Scotland’s economic wealth and cultural richness. We know that population decline can have an adverse effect on community confidence and service sustainability, increasing the vulnerability of communities now and for the longer term. We know, too, of the immense opportunity within all of Scotland’s communities, to drive economic growth as we deliver our transition to Net Zero over the coming decades. Halting or reversing depopulation, stabilising and balancing local populations is, therefore, required to provide a more diverse demographic which can meet local socio- economic needs and help us achieve national objectives.

A stable population includes a sustainable dependency ratio (the average number of economically dependent people per 100 economically productive people, within a specified area at a specific point in time). With many areas facing depopulation in Scotland also projected to face higher dependency ratios in the future, addressing depopulation by attracting and retaining working age people to affected areas serves a wider and important societal purpose, creating balance not just at a national, strategic level but also locally.

This provides a rationale for why the Scottish Government and affected local areas have a desire to see the challenge of population decline being addressed. However, we also need to consider how addressing depopulation at a local level can help us meet regional and national ambitions.

The Scottish Government recognises the historic impact of the Clearances and that many of the scars are still felt in communities. As part of addressing the long-term effects of this, where possible and desired we will seek to rectify the remaining barriers for people returning to cleared land, contributing towards delivering a more prosperous and fair nation, now and into the future.

Supporting sustainable communities in our rural and island areas supports a wide range of national objectives, for example around managing our natural capital, delivering high quality public services, attracting tourists, and enabling outdoor- led health and wellbeing. It also links clearly to the three missions of: reducing child poverty; a fairer, greener, growing economy; and public sector reform.

Furthermore, the Scottish Government’s National Outcomes include that “Our communities are shaped by the quality and character of the places we live in and the people we live among” and that “to be healthy and happy as a nation we must nurture and protect our local resources, environments and all who live in them”. Therefore, in order to deliver on our national aspirations, it is essential that we address, as a nation, the challenges leading to depopulation.

4.3 Our approach

We have taken a multi-pronged approach to developing this Action Plan:

By identifying existing national policy which either directly or indirectly supports population retention and/or growth, we have mapped a broad range of interventions already in place which support our strategic objective to address depopulation and support sustainable communities.

By commissioning new research in specific areas and delivering policy pilots which build on feedback received in response to the Islands Bond consultation, we have gained new insights and identified gaps and barriers within the policy landscape to inform how we develop and deliver new interventions.

We have worked in deep partnership with policy teams across the Scottish Government, and with the local government and third sectors, and with community representatives, to refine and develop this Action Plan, ensuring that it meets the needs expressed to us by communities.

Following delivery of the range of actions set out within this Action Plan, a second phase will aim to harness learning and outcomes towards wider targeting of support and enablement for communities facing population decline, while still ensuring a place-based approach is at the core of how we and partners deliver interventions and maximise opportunity.

We’ve sought to build on the initial success of Community Settlement Officers, located within three rural/island Local Authorities, creating a new network covering a wider range of geographies affected by depopulation, with a view to this network supporting even wider work across the country in the future.

Now and into the future, we are applying a data-driven, place-based, and locally driven approach to designing, delivering, and supporting interventions. This will ensure that we take account of the different potentials of rural areas to support population growth given existing demographic structures, migration rates and economic links with other regions, and the opportunities for progressive development across different places.

We’re clear that this Action Plan represents the first phase of how we establish a programme of work to strategically address this challenge, having mapped the breadth of the challenge and established the initial action we and partners will take.

In our approach to developing this Action Plan, what we have specifically not done is seek to direct exactly how depopulation may be tackled in a specific place. Instead, we have provided: the national policy commitment to address depopulation; an initial summary of some of the key policies that engage with significant factors of population change; and a recognition that a place-based approach to applying national, regional and local policies will be required to sustainably and effectively address depopulation.

By its very definition, that place-based approach can only be driven by local actors relevant to each specific place. This Action Plan provides the starting point, and the nationally agreed commitment, to undertaking discussions on how best to deliver on local needs and ambition.

The list of actions within this Plan are significantly focused on those being delivered by Scottish Government, and often represent policies and strategies that impact on population that are already underway. It is crucial that this collection of actions is not interpreted as the complete extent of Scottish Government’s effort to address depopulation, nor that addressing depopulation is the overwhelming responsibility of Scottish Government.

Through engagement with communities, stakeholders and partners, it has been frequently raised that individuals and organisations need to be supported in developing a greater understanding of the “why”, “how” and “who by” of delivering actions, services, and policies that have an impact on them. In doing so, individuals and organisations can be encouraged to more meaningfully engage and hold those responsible for delivery to account, thus empowering communities to have a greater role in shaping their futures.

In the context of such a multifaceted and cross- policy, cross-sectoral issue as depopulation, this sharing of what work is already underway can be even more crucial, and will allow for more informed discussions on what more may be required to address depopulation (whether that is new policy or new approaches to delivering policy).

For that reason, this Action Plan highlights a large volume of Scottish Government actions both underway and upcoming. These actions should be understood as the foundational level of Scottish Government policy in relation to addressing depopulation, from which all partners (national and local government, agencies, communities, business, etc) can collectively build approaches to realise the ambition of this Action Plan.

4.4 What the evidence tells us

Building on previous reports on the impacts of Brexit on Scotland’s population, migration schemes for rural areas, family migration, and more, in 2022, the Scottish Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population (EAG) published a report exploring Place-Based Approaches to Population Challenges.

The report assesses approaches to supporting rural and island repopulation, drawing from a range of international case studies. Its publication fulfilled the commitment made at previous Conventions of the Highlands and Islands (CoHI) to investigate how targeted repopulation efforts can work and builds on the long-term commitment the Scottish Government has made to investigate ways to support the repopulation of our rural and island areas – including the idea of a ‘Repopulation Zone’ proposed by local authorities at CoHI. The published report does not contain explicit recommendations for the Scottish Government, but sets out detailed lessons which have informed the development of this Action Plan.

High level insights from the report tell us:

  • There is no quick fix to population challenges, such as those found in parts of the Highlands and Islands. Housing, jobs, critical infrastructure, talent attraction, and migration are all central to the challenge.
  • Long-term coherence across policy is critical; between national, regional, and local actors to drive successful local attraction and retention.
  • Local leadership matters. Policies and initiatives to support local population levels need buy-in from communities.
  • Ideas for targeted population policy interventions, such as ‘Repopulation Zones’, need to be carefully calibrated in order to have positive impact; unintended consequences on neighbouring areas and lack of community buy-in are risks that have damaged targeted population interventions elsewhere, in the past.
  • International learning can inform how Scotland takes forward our approach on rural and island population sustainability (e.g. from Spain, France, Germany).
Isle of Tiree

The EAG notes that specific policies are also shaped by national political traditions, local governance arrangements, and welfare regimes. These differences must be acknowledged in drawing lessons for Scotland, with its own rich and unique societal and policy history. Whilst this necessitates sensitivity, it does not invalidate the huge benefits which may be drawn from international comparisons, and an awareness of how rural ‘repopulation’ policies are carried out elsewhere. However, the EAG acknowledges that constraints exist to direct comparability between international experiences and Scottish examples, and that there is a need to adapt to national and local specificities.

With this caveat in mind, the EAG presented the following key lessons for Scotland, drawing from the range of international case studies highlighted within the report:

  • Approaches to spatial targeting: A range of approaches to spatial targeting (in which actions are focused on a particular geographical area) show a gradual shift from a mainly quantitative approach to identifying zones, to one where such fixed identification of zones is less of a necessity. Hard boundaries are perhaps less appropriate when seeking to address less tangible social issues, well-being, and spatial justice.
  • The importance of coherence: One example illustrates very clearly a danger associated with zonal approaches to repopulation policy. Western European countries, including Scotland, have complex local policy landscapes. National, regional and local policy stakeholders should consider very carefully whether introducing yet another layer of intervention will deliver additional benefit. Interaction between policies is not always positive and ‘coherence’, both horizontally and vertically is vital, but hard to achieve in practice. These are crucial considerations before introducing zonal repopulation policies in Scotland.
  • ‘Demographic Proofing’ tends to be passive and is potentially ‘toothless’: There is a risk of words not being followed by effective action. Whilst a ‘proofing’ approach (which sets goals and responsibilities for those delivering strategic objectives) in theory addresses the need for coherence, unless it is accompanied by actions and delivery, it is unlikely to have much impact.
  • Shifting policy goals: All of the European examples indicate a move away from maintaining or increasing population numbers towards a focus upon well-being, and social/ spatial justice, emphasising citizens’ rights to basic services wherever they wish to reside.
  • Responses to ageing within a population should not be neglected: Age-group specific interventions can deliver psychological benefits and enhanced well-being.
  • Local community involvement in policy design and implementation is crucial: Intensive consultation, or better still, involvement in decision making ensures effective tailoring of interventions, and encourages ‘buy-in’ and commitment.

To conclude, the independent view of the Expert Advisory Group is that tackling Scotland’s population concerns is clearly an important policy issue, with changes in people’s individual behaviour, shifting local dynamics and new policy conversations emerging in this post-COVID period offering opportunities for a forward looking, collaborative approach. Repopulation zones may represent innovative models for intervention but possible unintended repercussions or consequences must be carefully considered prior to delivery. Embedding, from the beginning, a clear set of intervention goals and an associated process of ongoing evaluation is key to maximising the chances of success.

4.5 Measuring success

This Action Plan represents Phase One of delivering a strategic approach to addressing this issue. It will not initially, on its own, resolve the underlying, multi- faceted challenges facing different populations across Scotland. For that reason, success will not be easily defined as, for example, a percentage increase in a population within a specific geography. Addressing depopulation policy is focused on creating choice. Regardless of geographic location, individuals should be able to have a genuine choice of whether they remain in their community, or move elsewhere and, if they do move, they should also have the choice to return. Therefore, success will, in time, be defined as communities telling us that they feel supported and enabled to thrive by whatever metric they choose as their local priority, and that changes they experience are driven by choice. This could involve:

1. Facilitating communities to design and deliver their own approaches to addressing population decline, supported by nationally delivered initiatives within their localities.

2. Being able to attract the people and skills needed to sustain local economies.

3. Ensuring strong, person-centred public services are delivered where they are needed.

4. Giving local communities better access to the tools and support they need to sustain themselves.

In order to maximise the chances of success from this programme of work and to enable lessons to be learned for the future delivery of Phase 2, we will proactively combine elements of both formative and summative evaluation approaches. By embedding a formative approach from the start of programme delivery, we will harness the expertise of the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population to develop evaluation criteria grounded in the reality of the operating environment of the actions and interventions newly set out within this Action Plan. We will work with partners and communities to collectively set agreed parameters for evaluation, reflecting that the Scottish Government’s idea of a successful intervention may differ from the priorities identified by a community or local delivery partners. By doing this, we will embed place within how we collectively define success and allow variability in developing criteria which are relevant and appropriate for the place where the intervention is taking place.

This will also mean that, at the point we evaluate the finalised outcomes of these interventions, there will be a clear line of sight between the desired aims and objectives of the interventions, as established at the start of the process, and the final point where we evaluate to measure success and scope applicability for extending the programme of work into new parts of Scotland.

As previously stated, in addressing depopulation, this Action Plan will deliver on our National Outcomes. Whilst there will be a subjectivity in measuring the success of addressing depopulation due to the commitment that the definition of success will be set by the metrics local communities choose, delivering against National Outcomes also allows for progress to be measured against the 81 National Indicators aligned to our National Performance Framework.

Supporting Delivery

We will establish an Addressing Depopulation Delivery Group to monitor and report on the delivery of the actions outlined within this Action Plan. We will invite the broad range of partners involved in delivery to participate, including: the Scottish Government, COSLA, local authorities involved in the delivery of Community Settlement Officer roles, enterprise agencies, and community interest representatives. It may also become a useful forum to inform successful delivery of a Rural Visa Pilot scheme in future, if the UK Government agrees to its delivery.

We will work with partners to design a Population Impact Assessment, to be used by decision-makers across the public sector to meaningfully assess the impact of new investment or interventions, including considering the direct impact (i.e. of an intervention in the place where it is being delivered), but also indirect impacts (whether interventions would be better delivered elsewhere in line with overarching population strategic aims).


We will evaluate the outputs and outcomes of this Action Plan, and engage the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population, and wider stakeholders, to independently consider and advise on potential next steps to further support effective evaluation of this work.

4.6 International engagement and learning

The Scottish Government’s Population Strategy contains a commitment to engage internationally to share learning and best practice on addressing demographic challenges, and to carry out further evidence gathering and analysis on existing policies and literature to identify further areas for exploration. With a strong backdrop to population policy design in Scotland, which is informed by the independent Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population, first steps in this space have involved engagement between Scottish Government policy officials, EAG academics, and the international research community. Building on what is set out below, the Scottish Government intends to, in time, harness these relationships to inform the design of domestic policy interventions, and support international partners in addressing similar challenges relating to depopulation in their respective countries.


Reciprocal visits have taken place between October 2022 and March 2023 between academics and government officials from Scotland and Aragón, Spain. These visits highlighted the alignment of the demographic challenges in Aragón and Scotland and presented an opportunity for both territories to learn lessons from their respective approaches. This approach aims to contribute to the common goal of the development of the evidence base around challenges relating to depopulation, and how to better address them to achieve balanced and sustainable communities across the two territories.

In June 2023, a collaboration agreement was signed by the Chair of the EAG and the Director of the University Chair of Depopulation and Creativity at the University of Zaragoza, to strengthen and develop cooperation across areas that may inform future policy development in either Scotland or Aragón. Joint activities will focus on the following areas of shared interest:

1. Developing a better understanding of the role of communities in attracting and retaining populations

2. The interlinked capitals (social, human and political) that drive migration to rural areas

3. Exploring how local governance influences the drivers of population outcomes; and how local initiatives relate to wider policy goals

Japan: Island Depopulation lessons for Scotland

Another example of international learning in this space is a research report commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2022 to explore approaches taken to address island depopulation in Japan.

Like Scotland, Japan has many small islands, a large proportion of which have experienced depopulation in recent years. The research explores the impact of policy interventions in Japan, and proposes a series of recommendations for informing future Scottish island policy. The research was undertaken by a team based at Scotland’s Rural College, Akita University and Hiroshima University.

The research sought to address a range of research questions aimed at potentially supporting the development of policy interventions in Scotland which would address depopulation and support sustainable communities.

The research primarily focused on case studies relating to four islands in Japan (the Gotō islands, Nakanoshima, Sado Island and the Amami Islands), where varying interventions have been made to address depopulation linked to net zero, tourism, education, and remote working. The report set out a total of 15 recommendations for where island policy interventions in Japan could be useful to consider in the Scottish context.

One of the primary recommendations for Scottish policy development was to establish a flexible policy framework to ensure that local level interventions could be tailored as far as possible to local circumstances across diverse communities. As set out within a range of case studies within this document, the development of this Action Plan has been partially informed by a series of small-scale, community-based policy tests, to identify challenges and policy tensions concerning population decline within communities. These case studies demonstrate the need to enable flexible policy design to be delivered locally, and in line with local needs and ambitions, harnessing a place-based approach.

Another key recommendation within the report is that “any policies seeking to address demographic trends on islands are informed by up-to-date and accurate evidence about the historic, recent and potential future population trends” – including an understanding of the issues at a small, local scale, and how these issues can vary across different localities. The Spring 2024 publication of small- area data as part of Census 2022 will be a first step towards demonstrating that variability, at a granular level, across Scotland. Once published, data will also drive our next steps around, at a local level, better understanding the complex underlying causes of depopulation. This wider gathering of evidence should also seek to encompass “the interplay between demographic trends and wider social, economic and environmental processes, including land use, service provision, economic activity, transport and digital infrastructure, etc”.

Additionally, the researchers propose that further research exploring changing work and livelihood strategies, noting that “evidence collected on changing work and employment patterns since the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that rural and island locations may benefit from more flexible or hybrid working becoming the norm […]. While it was initially hypothesised that this shift to more flexible working would impact more accessible rural locations, there is evidence that people are prepared to move further out of urban centres, thus bringing the benefits of this shift to a wider geographical area (Nordregio, 2022)”.

As set out in the section on Transport, the Scottish Government has since commissioned an external research project to investigate the links between connectivity and household location choice, with a view to informing future decision making around connectivity.


  • We will build on existing agreements with the academic community in Aragón in pursuit of shared objectives in addressing demographic challenges. Harnessing the feedback from stakeholders and building on learning from the evidence base, we will proactively implement a flexible, communitydriven approach to the design and delivery of policy interventions.

Northern Sparsely Populated Areas network

The Northern Sparsely Populated Areas network (NSPA) encourages close collaboration between the four northernmost counties of Sweden (Norrbotten, Västerbotten, Jämtland Härjedalen, Västernorrland), the seven northernmost and eastern regions of Finland (Lapland, Northern Ostrobothnia, Central Ostrobothnia, Kainuu, North Karelia, Pohjois-Savo and South Savo) and North Norway (Finnmark Troms region and Nordland) – 13 in total.

Low population density and demographic changes (especially in the sense of rural depopulation) are among the network’s key thematic priorities, demonstrating strategic overlap with priorities identified within this Action Plan for the Scottish Government’s Ministerial Population Taskforce. The NSPA seek to raise awareness of their members (and the challenges they are facing) in EU institutions, to influence EU policy and to provide a platform for best practice.

The NSPA have a long-standing relationship with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scotland Europa, including collaboration on an annual event for the European Week of Regions and Cities. This year’s event focused on retaining talent in sparsely populated areas to accelerate the green transition, which is aligned to strategic objectives identified elsewhere in this Action Plan around the Just Transition.


We will, with Scottish partners, harness opportunities and maintain linkages with the NSPA to inform domestic policy making.



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