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.

06 Addressing depopulation: a national response, locally delivered

The Scottish Government recognises its role and responsibility, as part of a wider system, to proactively seek to address depopulation, both directly and indirectly, through the delivery of policy interventions across its range of responsibilities, especially where these are linked to identified drivers of population decline. This section therefore sets out:

  • A wide range of national-level policy which already explicitly supports the addressing of depopulation.
  • Next steps and actions which will be delivered at a national level, reflecting learning from case studies, policy pilots and research.
  • The baseline from which the Scottish Government intends to support outcomes in this area of work, and where national policy delivery structures operate, local impact being maximised by these structures.

However, national policy often has to consider a broad range of interests and factors. Stakeholders regularly state that, as a result of this, national policy has a challenge with local delivery. We, as national government, cannot replicate the experience of regional and local partners. National level policy can support and recognise the importance of place- based decision making, but cannot make decisions at a local level on prioritising resources.

A key role for Scottish Government in our national response to depopulation being delivered locally, is to work with partners once they have decided on policy or geographical prioritisation.

The following policy areas included in this section of the Action Plan are not intended to be presented as the only policies of relevance to addressing depopulation. This non-exhaustive list focuses on those areas that communities and stakeholders have consistently highlighted as key, and should be viewed as building the core foundations within Phase One of this programme of work, from which Scotland can build a more sustainable approach to delivering a more balanced population.

These enabling policies can be grouped into the following themes:

  • Infrastructure - including Housing, Transport, Digital Connectivity
  • Services - including Education, Childcare, Health & Social Care
  • Economy - including Migration, Talent Attraction, Skills
  • Culture - including Gaelic, Community Wealth Building, Workforce Dispersal
  • Land and Marine - including Methods of Land Ownership, Crofting, Blue Economy, Just Transition

6.1 Housing

Throughout the development of this Action Plan, stakeholders have told us of the importance of housing in enabling population retention, and for people to be able to newly move to communities facing population challenges.

The Scottish Government approach to the planning and delivery of new housing is focussed on providing the “right homes in the right places”, achieved by working closely with local authorities in their role as strategic housing and planning authorities. This underlying principle applies as much to rural as urban areas and forms the basis for our approach to the prioritisation and delivery of housing solutions across Scotland.

Housing to 2040 is Scotland’s long-term housing strategy and sets out a vision for what we want homes and communities to look and feel like for the people of Scotland, no matter where they live or their circumstances in life. It is the culmination of extensive engagement with the housing sector, wider stakeholders, and the public, including young people. Supporting affordable housing priorities in different areas requires flexibility. For example, regeneration initiatives linked to tenure diversification, providing Mid-Market Rented homes in high demand areas, or low-cost home ownership in rural communities.

Housing is, and will remain, a priority for this Government. Access to good quality housing is the focus of Housing to 2040 strategy and a vital part of our drive to secure economic growth, promote social justice, strengthen communities, and tackle inequality. To support this, the Scottish Government has set out our ambition to deliver 110,000 affordable homes, of which 70% will be for social rent and 10% in rural and island communities.

Between April 2016 and March 2023, the Scottish Government has supported the delivery of over 10,000 affordable homes across rural and island areas. In addition to housing delivery by local authorities and Registered Social Landlords through the mainstream affordable housing supply programme, we are continuing to support of up to £30 million over the lifetime of the Parliament for the continuation of the demand- led Rural and Island Housing Fund, offering support to communities, landowners, and other eligible organisations in the provision of additional affordable housing, through early feasibility funding as well as grant support for the delivery of affordable homes.

In October 2023, the Scottish Government published a Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan (RIHAP) to support the delivery of its affordable housing ambitions and the delivery of housing in rural and island communities. RIHAP will support delivery of our commitment to deliver 110,000 affordable homes, 10% of which will be in rural and island areas. It represents an important step in tackling the challenges and reinforcing the systems and support for the delivery of homes in rural and island areas.

The RIHAP recognises that it is essential to the economic vitality of rural and island areas that employers can attract and retain the key workers they require, not only to support service delivery for communities but also to support economic growth and prosperity. As such, the RIHAP includes a commitment to provide up to £25 million from our affordable housing supply programme budget over the period 2023-2028 in the form of the demand- led Rural Affordable Homes for Key Workers Fund. The fund will enable local authorities and registered social landlords to purchase existing suitable properties in rural and island areas which can be rented directly or leased to employers to provide affordable homes for key workers. This can include bringing empty properties back into use or acquiring properties on the open market to increase the supply of affordable homes for key workers.

Local authorities are expected to engage with a range of organisations in their localities including public sector employers, key agencies including Highlands and Islands Enterprise and South of Scotland Enterprise, as well as local businesses and registered local landlords to identify requirements and proposals.

RIHAP includes a focus on community-led housing and includes a three-year joint funding package that has been agreed between the Scottish Government and Nationwide Foundation of almost £1 million to support the capacity of Communities Housing Trust and South of Scotland Community Housing that will ensure that they can continue to support the delivery of rural homes within our rural and island communities.

Finally, RIHAP includes a strong focus on collaboration highlighting that the Scottish Government will work collaboratively with South of Scotland and Highlands and Islands Enterprise through the housing sub-groups of the Regional Economic Partnerships including consideration of future economic growth opportunities, housing delivery, construction and skills capacity and the broader role of the private sector in supporting and responding to housing requirements.


  • We will deliver 110,000 affordable homes of which at least 70% will be for social rent and 10% in rural and island areas, supported by our Rural and Island Housing Action Plan, to help attract and retain people to communities.
  • We will make available up to £25 million from our Affordable Housing Supply Programme budget over the period 2023-2028 for the demand-led Rural Affordable Housing for Key Workers Fund, to enable local authorities and registered social landlords to purchase properties in rural and island areas which can be rented directly or leased to employers to provide affordable homes for key workers.
  • We will work with local authorities, enterprise agencies and business representatives including private developers to improve understanding of housing requirements arising from key sectors. We will seek to enable more housing provision through sharing of good practice and collaboration between employers and housing providers.
  • We will work with the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, local authorities and owners to bring more empty homes in rural and island areas back into use, promoting available funding options, sharing best practice and identify opportunities for stronger collaboration.
  • We will invest £566 million in 2024-25 through our Affordable Housing Supply Programme as we continue to support the delivery of affordable homes to meet housing needs across Scotland.
  • We will continue to provide support of up to £30 million for the continuation of the demand-led Rural and Island Housing Fund, supporting communities, landowners and other eligible organisations in the provision of affordable housing, through early feasibility funding as well as grant support. This is in addition to housing delivery by local authorities and Registered Social Landlords through the mainstream Affordable Housing Supply Programme.
  • We will develop guidance to support communities, local authorities and others to undertake local housing assessments based on best practice and robust methodology.

6.2 Transport

With the evidence telling us that the concept of perceived peripherality is a strong driver of population decline in some communities, we recognise the importance of a strong transport system which supports and sustains people to locate themselves where they wish to build and live their lives. This section covers the strategic underpinning regarding national level transport decision making and explores next steps to be undertaken in support of these decisions, through a population outcomes lens.

Building an accessible, available, and affordable transport system for all of Scotland, with the costs shared more equally across Government, business and society, the National Transport Strategy sets out our vision through four key priorities: reducing inequalities; taking climate action; helping to deliver inclusive economic growth; and improving our health and wellbeing. The Strategy, through the approach to planning and delivery, accounts for our different regional differences, as recognised in the National Islands Plan and the National Council of Rural Advisers, and adopts targeted approaches that align with local needs. Importantly, the Strategy looks to ensure that those living in rural or island communities are well connected and have equitable access to services making a positive contribution to maintaining and growing the populations in these areas.

In December 2023, we published the National Transport Strategy: Third Annual Delivery Plan, which sets out the key actions taken by the Scottish Government to deliver the Strategy’s vision and priorities for 2023-24.

Alignment with local needs will be crucial if we are to realise our ambition of working to build and grow a sustainable, inclusive, safe and accessible transport system, that will support healthier, fairer and more prosperous Scotland. That will require engagement and collaboration across all sectors to identify and understand how transport systems and infrastructure can unlock and embrace the many potential economic opportunities from new Green Freeports to Space Ports and future renewable generation schemes.

The Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2) provides an overview of transport investment to 2042 and considers the needs of our communities from national and regional perspectives to reflect their different geographies, travel patterns, and demands. In December 2022, we published 45 recommendations for our investment in strategic transport and work is ongoing to enhance rail corridors, connectivity to island communities, freight facilities, and ferry vessel renewal and replacement. STPR2 recognises that much of our rural population resides in towns and villages and there are a number of active travel recommendations for these settlements, including long distance active travel networks, and for improvements to trunk roads between communities.

The Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance (STAG) and Development Planning and Management Guidance (DPMTAG) consider the problems and opportunities relevant to an area. Transport access, alongside spatial and digital access, are important components that impact on where people, households and businesses choose to locate. Appraisals must also consider the current policy context and ambitions at national, regional, and local levels which should include issues on population and demography.

We are providing targeted support for bus services on the longer and less commercially viable routes in rural and island communities through the Network Support Grant.

The 2019 Transport Act made provisions to empower local authorities with the flexible tools they need to respond to their own transport challenges. This allows local transport authorities to run their own bus services or franchise bus services in their areas. The Act also introduces new regulations covering the way in which bus operators must provide information to local authorities when they plan to reduce or withdraw the services they provide. By giving local authorities the flexible tools they need to respond to their own transport challenges, we can deliver a more responsive and sustainable transport system for communities.

We are currently progressing the Fair Fares Review to ensure a sustainable and integrated approach to public transport fares that supports the future long-term viability of a public transport system that is accessible, available, and affordable for people throughout Scotland.

Wemyss Bay train station

We are committed to ensuring that ferry services in Scotland fulfil a critical function within the wider transport system and support the delivery of the National Transport Strategy and the National Islands Plan. Providing transport connectivity supports the sustainability and growth of island and peninsula populations and supports local businesses to achieve sustainable economic growth. Fares on the Clyde & Hebridean and Northern Isles networks will be held at current levels until March 2024 to help people and businesses from Scotland’s rural and island communities. The strategic Islands Connectivity Plan will set a vision and priorities for delivery of ferry services in Scotland which will support development of local authority delivery plans and identify benefits to communities and the wider economy. This will build on the recent NZET Committee’s report calling for the Scottish Government to ensure true value is being achieved from spend on ferry services, including socio- economic factors such as depopulation.

We are committed to addressing the landslide challenges at the Rest and Be Thankful section of the A83. The announcement on 2 June 2023 of the preferred route option through the Glen Croe Valley is a very important milestone in finding a solution to this long-standing problem. The proposed new debris flow shelter will help protect the road and road users from future landslides. The scheme will help improve connectivity across the region, enhancing the region’s attractiveness as a place to work, live and visit, supporting sustainable economic growth. The improvements could also remove barriers to investment and improve access to labour markets, potentially helping support growth in a number of key sectors in the region and helping to arrest population decline.

The A9 Dualling Perth to Inverness programme will unlock the economic potential of the Highlands and Islands and we will work with contractors and local partners to create meaningful and lasting social value benefits wherever possible. The works are designed to deliver economic growth through improved road safety and reliable and quicker journey times, as well as better links to pedestrian, cycling, and public transport facilities. This underlinesthe Scottish Government’s commitment to connecting Scotland’s cities with a high-quality transport system that is safer for users and generates economic growth, whilst also improving connectivity for our rural communities who rely on essential road infrastructure to thrive.

The Scottish Government directly subsidises the Glasgow to Campbeltown, Tiree and Barra air services as we recognise the importance of these services in maintaining viable communities. Due to low passenger numbers the services cannot operate on a commercial basis but are important for residents of these areas to enable them to quickly access services that cannot be provided locally, for example specialist healthcare. Maintaining population levels, particularly through retaining younger working-age people in the age range of 16-44 is essential to the continued viability of these communities. Improved accessibility to goods, services and social/leisure travel enhances quality of life, increases community confidence and helps maintain population levels.

STPR2 recognises that Stranraer and the ports at Cairnryan act as an important gateway to Scotland for ferry passengers and freight, and that improving the transport assets in this location would support regeneration of South West of Scotland to benefit the economy and local communities. The Review recommends that safety, resilience and reliability improvements are made on the A75 and A77 strategic road corridors, in turn supporting placemaking opportunities, and that consideration should also be given to upgrading or relocating Stranraer railway station to encourage greater use of public transport and support wider town regeneration proposals.

Of relevance to the Scottish Borders Region, STPR2 also recognises that sufficient provision of rail freight terminals is critical to achieving a significant shift of freight from road to rail, and improving the sustainability and competitiveness of Scotland’s supply chain. In supporting economic growth in the region, these improvements could be expected to have a positive impact on population through increasing opportunities to live and work in the area.

In 2019, the Scottish Government launched the £2 million Mobility as a Service (MaaS) Investment Fund (MIF). MaaS explores the use of innovative digital data driven solutions to provide better, tailored information and easier access to flexible, sustainable transport options for people. This complements our existing work on digital travel data, smart ticketing, and contactless payments, which aims to make sustainable public transport and active travel an easy alternative to the car. One of the key themes of the MIF was to see how MaaS could address transport issues affecting rural communities. Addressing these issues and improving accessibility and sustainability of public transport in rural areas makes is a key element of maintaining social and economic opportunities, whilst continuing to meet climate ambitions. In this way, MaaS can help to improve the “liveability” of rural communities.

Five projects were awarded funding through the MIF, and are due to complete later this year.

Map showing the five projects funded through the Mobility as a Service Investment Fund across Scotland.

Case Study: Population and Household Location Research

The Ministerial Population Taskforce commissioned research in November 2022 to enhance the evidence base around transport and digital connectivity, and their respective links to local level population and household location choice experienced at a community level across parts of Scotland.

As set out across this Action Plan, a wide range of complex factors contribute to household location decisions. Research considered the potential role played by connectivity improvements in enabling policy responses, with improvements in transport and more recently digital connectivity shown to expand the search area people consider when choosing where to live. Good transport and digital connectivity may therefore be regarded as pre-requisite rather than a determinant of location decisions.

It also examined the interactions between digital and transport links, and the scope for digital substitution of physical connectivity. Accelerated by COVID-19, partial digital substitution has become reality in many workplaces and in the delivery of many services. However, complete substitution is rare and, more often, digital and transport connectivity were highlighted as complementary.

When looking specifically at rural depopulation, literature shows that digitally enabled remote working has reversed population decline in some locations, without formal policy intervention. However, a coherent picture of the distribution of these effects was not available at the time of writing. Neither was consistent quantitative data on the demographic composition of these population movements.

Digital and transport connectivity were shown to be essential to the development of sustainable communities. However, in order to develop connectivity interventions that can best support local community sustainability, further research is required to better articulate where improvements are needed, by whom and to what purpose.

The report also highlighted the need to consider potential unintended consequences of wider trends or policy interventions including an ageing population, access to affordable housing, and adverse impacts on rural foundation industries, essential services and digital inequalities.

Learning from this research will be used to inform our approach to infrastructure decision making and investment, and further inform our understanding about how to address wider challenges about all aspects of connectivity as a driver for successfully addressing challenges around population decline.


  • We will consider how to take forward the STPR2 recommendations as part of the STPR2 Delivery Plan.
  • We will publish the Fair Fares Review which will recommend a package of measures which can be considered for implementation from 2024-25 and onwards. These will provide opportunities to address the wider issues for the cost and availability of public transport services across all modes of public transport.
  • We will publish the report on Population and Household Location research commissioned by the Scottish Government, completed in August 2023. This will be followed by further research to better understand where digital and transport connectivity improvements are needed, by whom and for what purpose, to inform potential future decision-making concerning digital connectivity as a substitute for physical transport connectivity.
  • We will utilise the evaluation of the five MIF projects as the evidence base for future policy and investment in MaaS in Scotland.
  • We will progress the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness in line with the delivery plan announced on 20 December 2023, including taking forward the procurement of the Tomatin to Moy project.
  • We will make improvements to the A96, including dualling Inverness to Nairn and the Nairn bypass, and publish the review of the A96 Dualling Programme.
  • We will continue to develop both a long term solution and medium term improvements to the landslip risks at the A83 Rest and Be Thankful, and to press the UK Government to fulfil its commitments to contribute to funding improvements to the A75.
  • We will invest in ferry services to support our island communities, including continuing the construction of six major vessels, port improvements at Lochmaddy and Uig, port enabling works on the Islay routes, and consulting on and completing the Long Term Plan for Vessels and Ports to support our Islands Connectivity Plan.

6.3 Digital

Closely linked to the physical connectivity needs of Scotland’s population, and as highlighted through the research mentioned in the previous section, is the enablement delivered through enhanced digital connectivity for Scotland’s population. Across a range of key commitments, the Scottish Government is supporting this objective.

The Scottish Government’s Reaching 100% (R100) programme is delivering future-proofed broadband infrastructure that will underpin economic growth and transform the economic prospects of communities across Scotland.

R100 is being delivered through three key strands of activity – the Scottish Government’s £600 million R100 contracts, the R100 Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (R100 SBVS) and ongoing commercial coverage.

Around 70% of the 114,000 premises expected to be connected through the R100 contracts are in rural Scotland, with around 12,000 of these premises located in island communities. Once connected these premises are likely to have access to future-proofed gigabit capable infrastructure, which can provide download speeds of up to 1 Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second.

Through the Scottish 4G Infill (S4GI) programme, the Scottish Government is investing £28.75 million in future-proofed infrastructure to improve rural 4G mobile coverage.

The R100 programme has already delivered 16 new fibre optic subsea cables providing resilient, future-proofed connectivity to 15 Scottish islands for decades to come. This is in addition to 20 fibre optic subsea cables delivered through our previous Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme.

All of the 55 sites to be delivered through S4GI are located on islands or in rural Scotland. S4GI is improving everyday life for the communities the masts serve, through directly supporting wider plans for digitally enabled economic opportunities, including local tourism, and enabling residents to access services and stay in touch with families and friends more easily.

Work is being taken forward by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to develop an overview of the current connectivity position in the Convention of the Highlands and Islands Population Working Group “repopulation zone” areas. Additional work is also being taken forward by the Scottish, Welsh and UK Governments to collaborate further on data sharing and to consolidate all coverage data, alongside information about future planned infrastructure investment, on islands.


  • R100 contract build is actively delivering at pace across Scotland. Over 43,000 premises have been connected as a result of the R100 contracts (as at 30 November 2023 and including contractual overspill) with a further 3,639 connections delivered through the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (as at 01 December 2023).
  • An R100 SBVS funded project to connect almost all properties on Papa Westray to full fibre has concluded and uses innovative fibre in water pipes technology as part of the build solution.
  • Currently 54 masts in the Scottish 4G Infill programme are live and providing 4G connectivity at rural sites, with the final mast expected to be activated later this year.
  • We will work with areas covered by existing Community Settlement Officers to consider local connectivity options and how we can support communities to access these.
  • We will continue to invest over £600 million in the broadband networks of the future, through the Reaching 100% (R100) broadband programme.
  • We will utilise HIE’s review of digital connectivity and further data sharing among Scottish, Welsh and UK Governments to inform further discussions on what connectivity options exist, and how relevant stakeholders can work together to support communities to access these.

6.4 Education

Seeking educational opportunities has been cited as a driver of depopulation across a number of nations,[6] and a lack of educational opportunities (perceived or real) was also highlighted in the responses to the Islands Bond in 2022 as negatively impacting on decisions to remain in island communities. It is not uncommon for rural and island stakeholders in particular to present the existence and future viability of local schools as a key indicator of community sustainability.

The Scottish Government is responsible for overseeing the process local authorities are required to undertake in relation to consultations on significant changes to school provision in their area, including in relation to school openings and closures and changes to catchment areas. All of these factors can impact on, or influence, demographic challenges at a community level, and we recognise the importance of education provision as a key factor influencing community attractiveness and sustainability.

Scottish Ministers have statutory obligations in relation to school closures, specifically around reviewing local authority school closures proposals to ensure they have met the requirements of the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 within statutory timeframes and if necessary, passing such proposals to an independent panel for further review. The Scottish Government also oversees the statutory guidance and related support materials provided to local authorities to guide them through the process and their statutory obligations.

In Scotland, there is a presumption against closure of rural schools and there are special protections set out in the 2010 Act. Local authorities must undertake specific additional steps when they propose to close a rural school. These include clearly demonstrating that they have considered alternatives to closure, an assessment of the likely impact on the community and impact on travel to school arrangements for local pupils.

The local authority must also set out the educational benefit of the closure and respond to Education Scotland’s assessment of the educational impact on those affected. If a proposal to close a school is rejected, then the local authority cannot repeat the process for five years, providing stability for the local community. These protections are intended to ensure that local authorities think very carefully before closing a rural school and consult extensively with the local community about their proposal.

The Scottish Government has commenced a series of online training sessions for local authority officers who lead on such consultations. This will cover issues such as the statutory requirements as they relate to rural schools, mothballing schools, and Education Scotland’s role in the process. The Scottish Government also plans to, in future, review and revise the 2010 Act statutory guidance.

The Scottish Government has published its Learning Estate Strategy – which sets out the Scottish Government’s strategic vision for the learning estate in Scotland. The Scottish Government, in partnership with local authorities, is also responsible for the £2bn Learning Estate Investment Programme (LEIP). LEIP prioritises schools in need of updating, as identified by local authorities, to ensure rapid progress where most required and will benefit tens of thousands of pupils across Scotland. Demographic factors sit alongside other factors such as condition and suitability of existing buildings in informing decision making about where to build new schools or refurbish existing schools. LEIP projects complement local authorities’ activities in relation to their learning estate and local authorities will oversee and fund their own school building/refurbishment projects. On 30 October 2023, Scottish Government announced that ten local authorities, including Argyll and Bute, Orkney, and Shetland, are to be awarded funding in the third phase of the LEIP, which will be worth £450-500 million. The Scottish Government will continue working with COSLA, local authorities and Scottish Futures Trust to explore how we can deliver further improvements in the school estate.

Alongside supporting the provision of school infrastructure, work continues to support General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) qualified teachers to remain and return to Scotland’s islands and rural areas whilst continuing to teach through the continued development of e-Sgoil.

E-Sgoil is currently delivering live online learning opportunities across Na h-Eileanan Siar, the Northern Alliance, and the whole of Scotland, employing teachers from island and rural communities across Scotland, including Depute Head Teacher posts in Lewis, Argyll and Bute, Orkney, and Shetland. This offers teaching, leadership and even national leadership opportunities and experience to educators and staff located in rural and island communities.

E-Sgoil is also supporting children and young people who live in rural and island communities through their offer of Gaelic learner, Gaelic Medium, and all-subjects supply offer to all 32 local authorities across Scotland. This allows schools and settings to offer their learners an equitable curriculum despite their geography.

Further information on the impacts of e-Sgoil is available on their website.

Case Study

Teachers returning or moving to the islands to teach online have expressed their appreciation for the opportunity through a range of testimonials:

  • Gaelic Medium Teacher who returned to Harris – page 7: e-Sgoil newsletter - September 2022
  • David Downham, Depute Head Teacher who moved to North Uist – page 5: e-Sgoil newsletter - Feb 22
  • Newly qualified Art & Design Teacher who returned to the Isle of Barra – page 5: e-Sgoil newsletter - Feb 22

University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI)

UHI is a tertiary institution with a partnership of colleges, internationally recognised research institutions and specialist teaching centres. UHI delivers further education, higher education and research to over 36,000 students per year, across their campus of 70 teaching and learning centres.

The UHI strategic plan 2030 sets out a vision to “attract, nurture and retain talent in our communities, supporting innovation and social and economic prosperity. We will do this through the innovative delivery of flexible lifelong learning focused on employability and skills and impactful research”.

Their specialisms can attract young people to the region. e.g. adventure tourism, textile, archaeology, while at the same time UHI can also provide work based learning pathways into further and higher education, linked to employment which if grown, can increase the retention of talent in the region.

However, in some areas (for example Fort William), the resultant lack of available accommodation has been raised by UHI as impacting on their ability to offer places to students who want to move to the area to study.

Particularly in rural and island areas, further and higher education can be understood as key sectors for supporting population stability and growth. For example, islands stakeholders have indicated that Orkney’s population growth in recent years is primarily founded on young people’s re-location to the area to support a vibrant science and innovation sector – with a significant proportion of these people settling in the area.

Through the Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan, Scottish Government have committed to working with local authorities, enterprise agencies and business representatives including private developers to improve understanding of housing requirements arising from key sectors.

6.5 Access to health and social care

Access to health and social care services is key to ensuring that communities remain resilient but also attractive for potential new arrivals. This section sets out, across key areas such as population health, primary care, and access to social care services, how we will harness the strength of our institutions and services to support communities facing population decline across Scotland.

Role of Institutions

The Scottish Government’s Place and Wellbeing Programme includes the Anchors workstream,, which in part aims to help address population and demographic challenges in rural areas through its work with NHS Boards. NHS Boards have a major presence and impact in their local area as they employ a large number of people, spend a lot on goods and services, and have multiple buildings, land, and other assets. NHS Scotland employs over 180,000 people in a wide variety of jobs, accounting for over 15% of all employment, and spends over £3.3 billion on goods and services each year.

This workstream has the potential to address population and demographic challenges through a range of action currently being taken forward:

  • Supporting NHS Boards, which are significant employers in rural regions, to recruit and retain local people into fair employment opportunities.
  • Addressing any barriers at a national level which prevent NHS Boards from procuring more local goods and services so they can make more of a contribution to their local economy.
  • Exploring how the NHS can: share more of its assets with community and voluntary organisations, by for example, opening up green spaces or providing building space for community use and disposing of its land and properties for community benefit, for example, to support affordable housing.

As part of the NHS Scotland Delivery Plan Guidance, which was issued by the Scottish Government in February 2023, NHS national and territorial Boards have been asked to develop an:

“Anchors strategic plan by October 2023 which sets out governance and partnership arrangements to progress anchor activity; current and planned anchor activity and a clear baseline in relation to workforce; local procurement; and if relevant, use or disposal of land and assets for the benefit of the community.”

Further guidance has been issued to all NHS Boards to support them with the development of their Anchor Strategic Plans and the workstream has developed a set of metrics to enable NHS Boards to baseline their contribution as anchor institutions. This includes establishing a baseline on target groups within the workforce.

The Anchors Workforce Strategic Group, which met for the first time in March 2023, established a Local Employability Partnership-Health Board Interface Task and Finish Group. This group will explore the partnership arrangements between Local Employability Partnerships and Health Boards, including Boards which have issues around employment in rural areas.

In the Scottish Government’s Proactive and Preventative Care Programme, we currently have Getting It Right For Everyone (GIRFE) pathfinders and enhanced community care and treatment centres. Some of these are relevant to addressing community need in areas facing demographic change.

GIRFE is a proposed multi-agency approach of support and services from young adulthood to end- of-life care, aimed to support improved co-ordination and joined up support across principle, enhanced or specialist teams. It will form the future practice model of all health and social care professionals and shape the design and delivery of services, ensuring that people’s needs are met.

GIRFE is about providing a more personalised way to access help and support when it is needed. There are currently eight GIRFE place-based pathfinders and two GIRFE partners representing 10 Health and Social Care Partnerships (HSCPs). They are aligned to five thematic areas and the pathfinder in Orkney is focused on frailty and older people, looking at individual support services and finding a way to improve and support access through a person- centred approach. GIRFE has now completed the national sensemaking process and is moving into idea generation sessions with lived experience and staff from Summer 2023 and planning partner open days to engage HSCPs interested in becoming GIRFE Partners.

Since 2018 we have significantly expanded primary care multi-disciplinary teams, with total staff of 4731 WTE working in services including physiotherapy, pharmacy and phlebotomy at March 2023. We are supporting development of these teams through investment of £190 million in 2023-24 through the Primary Care Improvement Fund. The multi- disciplinary team workforce are supporting GPs and practice teams, ensuring more people get the right care in the right place at the right time. While we have made significant progress, we know that implementation gaps remain. That is why we are introducing an additional ‘phased investment programme’ working with a small number of areas to demonstrate what a model multidisciplinary team can look like in practice.

The programme will strengthen the evidence base on the national context for the implementation of primary care MDTs and inform future long term Scottish Government investment. Working collaboratively with the Scottish Government and the Demonstrator Sites in this programme, Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS) will be responsible for supporting the sites in improving services at a system level and to improving understanding of the impact of MDT working. Following an established selection process, the four sites have been chosen to ensure we obtain evidence across a range of settings including urban and rural areas and areas with significant levels of deprivation. Working in parallel to this programme, Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s new National Primary Care Improvement Collaborative will provide support for local teams to implement quality improvement (QI) approaches in improving access to primary care, pharmacotherapy and CTAC services.

Social Care: Self-Directed Support and the Independent Living Fund

Self-Directed Support

The Self-Directed Support (SDS) Improvement Plan 2023-2027 was published in June 2023 in collaboration with COSLA, with the objective of closing the gap between what was promised in the 2013 SDS Act and the current reality of people supported by SDS across Scotland.

This Plan builds on the successes of previous efforts to improve SDS availability and relies on the continuing work that local authorities do every day to make flexible, personalised care available to thousands of people across Scotland.

The “golden threads” of the plan are a number of cross-cutting issues which are fundamental to the full delivery of SDS as intended by the SDS Act and other relevant legislation. The golden threads are areas that all activity related to SDS improvement should consider in implementation. One of these golden threads is the needs of rural and island communities.

The Support in the Right Direction (SiRD) programme is funded by the Scottish Government and provides local independent support, advice and advocacy in line with the Scottish Government’s vision for Self- Directed Support.

The new phase of the programme, SiRD 2024- 2027, includes updated aims and outcomes and will distribute in the region of £3 million per year investing up to £100,000 per local authority area.

The SiRDs programme works with people and carers at every stage of their social care journey, providing independent support that is integral to social care. They ensure a person-centred approach and respond flexibly to individual circumstances to provide direct, end-to-end, independent support for all social care user groups, including those in rural communities.

Independent Living Fund

We will reopen the Independent Living Fund on a phased basis, with an initial £9 million in 2024- 25 to enable up to 1,000 of the most disabled people in Scotland who face the greatest barriers to independent living to access the support they need to lead independent lives. The Independent Living Fund supports individuals who have complex disabilities to live independently in Scotland by providing additional funding for recipients to purchase support over and above that provided by Local Authorities, helping them to live where and how they wish, and giving them more choice and control over their lives. ILF recipients can employ relatives as personal assistants, which is of particular value in rural communities where the local workforce may be stretched. Over the coming months, we will continue to work with disabled people’s organisations and other stakeholders, including those from rural areas, to co-design the reopened Fund, including developing access principles that will ensure funding is targeted at those who will benefit from it the most.

Rural Primary Care

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting and developing rural primary care.

We are taking forward a range of initiatives to support recruitment and retention of workforce in rural General Practice. These include a Golden Hello scheme to attract new rural GPs, and SCOTGEM, a scheme that provides a graduate- entry medical degree with a rural focus.

The Scottish Government is also supporting an innovative recruitment campaign called Rediscover The Joy (RTJ). RTJ aims to recruit experienced GPs to provide support for rural practices.

The Scottish Government is working to develop a Workforce Recruitment Strategy by the end of 2024 which will support employers to ensure that the Health and Social Care needs of people who live in rural and island communities are met.

We are working closely with NHS Education for Scotland on delivery of the National Centre for Remote and Rural Health and Care, launched in October 2023. The Centre has an initial focus on Primary Care in rural and island communities and will play a key role in maintaining a rural focus on Recruitment and Retention, Education and Training, Research and Evaluation, Leadership and Good Practice.


Social Care

  • We will begin work on local SDS improvement plans with local authorities, in order to improve choice, address barriers to flexible use of SDS and to support local authority leaders to innovate, embed and implement SDS in a way that is beneficial to their population.
  • We will distribute in the region of £3 million per year through the Support in the Right Direction programme 2024-2027, investing up to £100,000 per local authority area.
  • We will reopen the Independent Living Fund on a phased basis, with an initial £9 million in 2024-25 to enable up to 1,000 of the most disabled people in Scotland who face the greatest barriers to independent living to access the support they need to lead independent lives.

Rural Primary Care

  • We will progress the National Centre for Remote and Rural Health and Care, launched in October 2023 to improve primary and community services.

6.6 Childcare

As set out in the Programme for Government, affordable and accessible childcare supports employment and the economy, and secure and sustainable employment helps lift families out of poverty. We recognise that the provision of childcare is a key factor to support more people to enter and sustain training, employment, or to start a business, and that there are specific challenges for rural and island communities. It is also critical for children to be able to access the high quality funded Early Learning and Childcare they are entitled to in Scotland, which extensive evidence has shown will benefit their development and support good outcomes over their lifetime. The following sets out a range of work being taken forward by the Scottish Government to enhance our childcare offering, in the context of communities facing population decline.

Through our childcare Early Adopter Communities, we are testing new models of targeted childcare provision as part of our national mission to tackle child poverty. We have committed to work in specific communities in six local authority areas to develop the local infrastructure and services needed to provide childcare for families who need it most. We are funding school age childcare offers in Inverclyde, Glasgow, Dundee and Clackmannanshire and have recently established two new Early Adopter Communities in Fife and Shetland, recognising the specific challenges of setting up and sustaining childcare provision in rural and island communities.

Our Shetland project in particular will help us to better understand the challenges and opportunities of childcare provision in rural and island communities.

Within this project we will work with identified communities in Shetland, where there are currently no school age childcare services, to design and develop childcare provision which take into account the unique needs and circumstances of the families and communities.

In the first phase of the project, a dedicated local co- ordinator will undertake engagement and scoping activities to understand the needs within each community. This will include individual childcare needs, specific local infrastructure, and the range of services needed to sustain childcare for families – including challenges such as transport and appropriate workforce.

Phase 2 will begin to design and test new models of childcare provision to suit the needs of local families. Services will be designed and delivered using a people-centred, place-based approach to ensure that the needs of families are met, in order to support parents and carers to improve their circumstances and increase their incomes. This will also consider how provision of childcare impacts decisions about the viability of working life for families within these communities.

Understanding childcare needs and solutions at a community level in these areas will allow us to consider the flexibility, affordability and accessibility of childcare and will inform the design of future national policy.

Scottish Rural Childminding Partnership

The Scottish Childminding Association (SCMA) is working in partnership with Highland and Islands Enterprise, South of Scotland Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland to deliver a project aiming to support the recruitment and training of 100 new professional childminders in specific communities within 10 defined areas of Scotland.

The areas the project focusses on are in Argyll and Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, the Highlands, Moray, North Ayrshire (Arran and Cumbrae), Orkney, Scottish Borders, Shetland, Stirling, and Na h-Eileanan Siar.

The Scottish Government has provided funding to support this campaign and the pilot involves the development of new marketing materials targeted at female career changers in specific age groups; the deployment of traditional and digital marketing approaches; provision of intensive support throughout the registration process; access to professional learning courses; and a £750 start-up grant for those who complete their registration to help with buying equipment and preparing their homes.

The pilot has gathered valuable lessons about effective recruitment to these roles – in particular, the need to allow more time for people to decide on a career change; how best to make information available; and the importance of local knowledge and networks in targeting recruitment activity. As this supported recruitment model has proven to be effective the Scottish Government has provided additional funding to support the next phase of this pilot to trial the model in urban areas. The second phase also includes some further follow-up recruitment across rural areas.

In the 2023 Programme for Government, the Scottish Government committed to scaling up these innovative pilots to grow this essential part of our workforce by 1,000 more. We will also implement a range of measures to address retention issues, ensuring that childminders are supported with their workloads and professional development. These will include trialling a new mentoring scheme and models of funded ‘time off the floor’ to allow childminders to undertake activity such as planning and continuous professional learning. The learning from the retention support activity will be evaluated at the end of the programme to inform future work.

Early learning – targeted offer for 2 year olds

In parallel to the work set out above in the early adopter communities, this year’s Programme for Government set out our commitment that, we will begin work to phase in an expanded national offer for families with two-year-olds, focused on those who will benefit most. This will build on the foundations of the existing 1140 programme, which already makes high quality early learning and childcare available to around a quarter of families with two-year olds on the lowest incomes.

Through existing evidence and research, we know that the needs of one and two year old children are different from those aged three and four. In expanding our offer further we will be guided by what families experiencing poverty tell us they need and what the evidence tells us is best for younger children.

We recognise that childcare is a significant challenge for communities in some rural and island areas and that these communities may face specific challenges in the context of delivering a new offer. We will therefore seek to take a place-based approach to developing the new offer, with a focus on the development and planning phase in 2024-25. As part of this we will use the early adopter communities to understand what families want and need for younger children.

School age childcare

We are committed to building a system of school age childcare, which will be funded for those families on the lowest incomes.

We are investing in communities across Scotland, including island and rural, through our Early Adopter Communities, Access to Childcare Fund projects and a partnership with the Scottish Football Association to understand the role of local football clubs in providing after school and holiday clubs. We are also working with the Scottish Childminding Association to ensure that childminders are key partners in a future system of school age childcare.

Last year, we published a report on Accessing School Age Childcare in Rural and Island Settings. This research reinforces our evidence base and confirms the importance of flexible, affordable, accessible school age childcare to the rural economy. It recognises the specific challenges for rural and island communities and the recommendations within this report are supporting the development of new school-age childcare policies.

Our ongoing work in delivering the National Strategy for Economic Transformation recognises the importance of childcare as we build and sustain thriving rural businesses and communities, and in addressing child poverty.

Our work across rural Scotland recognises that the combined provision of childcare, employability support and transport is a key factor in supporting more people into training, employment, and business start-ups.

This research complements the testing we are already carrying out through our Access to Childcare Fund, which has been supporting services across Scotland, including in rural areas, to deliver childcare for families on low incomes. This includes work in Angus to test provision of funded school age childcare in a rural area. We will continue to explore models of childcare in different rural contexts.

In developing our future system of school age childcare, we are taking a people-centred design approach. The future system will be co-designed with the people who will use it, and those who will deliver it, including those from rural and island communities.

In October 2023, we published The National Children’s Charter for School Age Childcare which was co-designed by A Place in Childhood (APiC), Scottish Government, and children from five schools and one young carers group in Dingwall, Dundee, Alloa, Mid Yell, and Aberdeen. Schools were chosen to represent the different types of areas (urban, rural, and island) and diverse experiences across Scotland. The Charter sets out the children’s views about why we need school age childcare, how school age childcare should be run and by whom, where it should take place, and what activities should be on offer. It also sets out six principles which the children agreed should be respected in school age childcare settings. These are kindness, community, fairness, happiness, fun and choice. We will use the Charter to make sure that when we make decisions about school age childcare, we think about what is really important to children.

Work is also currently underway with our People Panel, which has worked across Scotland (including in rural and island areas) to understand parents and carers needs from the future system of school-age childcare.

Arinagour, Isle of Coll

Case Study:

In the Kinlochbervie area, Highland Council officers carried out a scoping exercise at a local community level, rather than at a Local Authority level to understand the provision, demand (current and potential), challenges, and opportunities for models of delivery across the spectrum of childcare from under 3s to school age, formal to informal childcare, nursery to childminding.

Working with a range of partners and local service providers, discussions were held with representatives from Transport, Health and Social Work, local headteachers and school staff, Highlife Highland, The Forestry Ranger service, Employability, Skills Development Scotland, University of the Highlands, SCMA, CALA, and The Anne Duchess of Westminster Foundation.

Officers met with local parents and families within the community and gathered community views via an online childcare survey. The resultant report highlights some of the key challenges and barriers to service and concludes with costings and projections for possible service provision moving forward.

In Mull, work was undertaken by Mull and Iona Community Trust and Community Enterprise Scotland to investigate the feasibility of using existing physical spaces at Iona, Bunessan, Salen, and Tobermory Pre- 5 Units for for 2, 3, and 4 year-olds (additional childcare beyond the 1140 hours statutory provision), and childcare for 0 to 2 year olds. This included an exploration of the required staffing levels, fees required to make such care viable, and whether that charge would be affordable for local families who wish to use it.

The study also explored the same considerations with regard to school age childcare for children age 5-12+. The purpose of this project was to understand whether better utilising the public sector estate could present an opportunity to deliver additional childcare in rural and island settings where there may not be a reasonable expectation of purpose-built facilities being provided.


  • We will continue our work to design funded all-age childcare, that meets families’ childcare needs, through our early adopter communities, including those in rural and island locations.
  • We will scale up our innovative childminder recruitment pilots to grow this essential part of our workforce by 1,000 more across Scotland.
  • We will continue to fund a range of childcare projects in rural and island areas to improve our understanding of how to deliver more affordable and accessible childcare to support families in rural communities.

6.7 Migration, Talent Attraction and Skills

Stakeholders and communities across Scotland have repeatedly highlighted that the current UK immigration system – particularly following the ending of Freedom of Movement – does not meet the needs of rural and island communities. Since the publication of the paper Migration: Helping Scotland Prosper, the Scottish Government has called for a more targeted policy approach to facilitate rural migration to be trialled. This position was supported by the UK Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in 2019, who noted that the current immigration system is ‘not very effective’ in encouraging migration to rural areas and recommended that the UK Government trial a bespoke scheme to address this; a recommendation which was accepted by the then-Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. A commitment to develop migration solutions for rural and island areas was included in the Scottish Government’s 2021 Programme for Government, along within the 2021 Population Strategy.

Rural migration

Rural Visa Pilot

Throughout 2022, the Scottish Government worked with our independent Expert Advisory Group (EAG) on Migration and Population and key stakeholders across Scotland to develop a proposal for a Rural Visa Pilot which is designed to meet the needs of rural and island communities. The proposal was developed by a working group which constituted 12 local authorities and nine key industry representatives, which supported the development of the proposal through Spring/Summer 2022.

The proposal calls for the establishment of a Scottish Rural Community Immigration Pilot (SRCIP). This would represent a new community-driven approach to local migration modelled on successful immigration schemes in Canada, which would allow rural communities to attract migrants in line with their distinct needs. Underpinning the scheme is a ‘Strategic Skills Plan’, which would be developed with input from the local authority, local employers, and other community representatives, which would set out both skills which are in shortage in the local area, and those which have potential for strategic growth. These would be furthered enhanced by providing a robust and consistent evidence base such as those provided by Skills Development Scotland. Another key component of the scheme is the integration support which would be provided to migrants after their arrival in the area, in order to promote and support long-term settlement in rural and island communities.

Following the proposal’s endorsement in the Scottish Parliament in September 2022 during a parliamentary debate on Scotland’s population, Mairi Gougeon MSP, now Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands, wrote to the Home Secretary about the proposal, requesting that the UK Government work with the Scottish Government and partners to trial the scheme.

A range of stakeholders both in Scotland and the wider UK have publicly expressed their support for the proposal, including the MAC who described the proposal as “sensible and clear in terms of scale and deliverability”, and we will continue to urge the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government, local authorities, and communities to deliver a tailored migration scheme which meets the needs of Scotland’s rural and island communities.

Migration Strategy

A range of additional priority work is being taken forward by the Scottish Government in line with our migration strategy objectives, all of which offer discrete opportunities to support the wider sustainability of communities in Scotland, including those facing population decline.

Asylum seeker right to work pilot

We commissioned the independent Expert Advisory Group (EAG) on Migration and Population and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research to undertake research to underpin the development of a pilot proposal for expanding the scope for asylum seekers resident in Scotland to work. Currently asylum seekers are only allowed to work if their asylum application has been lodged for 12+ months and only in roles on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL). This research explores the impact employment has on individual integration and wellbeing as well as on Scotland’s economy and communities. This is in line with the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommendation for the UK Government to review its policy on allowing asylum seekers to work more easily. The report was published in December 2023.

The findings show that allowing asylum seekers the right to work could help them settle into communities better while boosting Scotland’s economy and workforce. Enabling asylum seekers to gain employment could improve health and wellbeing and reduce the risk of exploitation. Changes to the current rules could also benefit the Scottish economy, help fill gaps in the workforce and see increased council tax paid directly to local authorities which host asylum seekers. The report will underpin the development of proposals for a Scottish Asylum Right to Work pilot, to be submitted for consideration to the Home Office in 2024.

Displaced Talent Pilot – working with partners in Talent Beyond Boundaries and spreading awareness of the opportunities amongst employers across Scotland

The UK Government is currently running two pilots with Talent Beyond Boundaries that seek to support people displaced in migrant camps to come to the UK through skilled migration routes. There are two pilots in the UK, a displaced talent mobility scheme and a route focusing on the skills needs of the NHS. These complementary pathways are an essential component to the international community’s response to the global displacement crisis. The former First Minister committed £83,000 to Talent Beyond Boundaries to support approximately 50 displaced individuals to make their home in Scotland. This pilot increases the availability of safe and legal routes to the UK for people in need of protection and affords refugees the dignity of being able to work to support their families and contribute to their new communities. We are currently exploring options to expand TBB’s capacity in Scotland.

UK Government Engagement

The Scottish Government will continue to engage with the UK Government through official channels such as Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) calls for evidence to support their scrutiny of the UK immigration system. Scottish Government Ministers also participate in the four nations Inter-Ministerial Group on Safety, Security and Migration which meets approximately three times a year.

The Worker Support Centre (WSC)

The WSC, which is funded by the Scottish Government, assists all migrants in Scotland who are on the Seasonal Worker visa to access free, impartial & confidential information about their workplace rights, support, and advice. It follows models used around the world to offer temporary migrant workers advice and support. In countries from Canada to Germany, temporary migrant workers are offered a similar service – this support can help prevent workers ending up in situations of human trafficking and is an important step forward for Scotland and contributes to the sustainability of the horticulture sector, which is a key employer in some rural parts of Scotland. The aims of the WSC also align with commitments on fair work, good food, community wealth building, and economic growth, and contribute to Scotland being seen as a global leader in protecting the welfare of migrant agricultural workers. We are exploring the strategic expansion of the Centre to support migrant workers in other high-risk sectors, such as fisheries, which are crucial to the sustainability of rural communities.

Talent Attraction and Migration Service

We have committed to launching a Talent Attraction and Migration Service (TAMS) in response to employers and individuals telling us that the UK’s immigration system is expensive, complex, and bureaucratic. We also know the importance of attracting and retaining talent to our economy and our communities. TAMS will:

1. Attract people to Scotland.

2. Help employers to effectively and efficiently use the immigration system to help meet their skills and labour needs.

3. Provide information and advice to people moving to Scotland to help them successfully settle into their communities.

4. Be delivered through a single online digital platform.

TAMS will aim to deliver a range of benefits to Scotland, including: more people moving to Scotland; people staying longer once they arrive here; in time, more people choosing to settle permanently here; and increased tax revenue.

TAMS will enable employers to use the immigration system effectively and efficiently to help meet their skills and labour needs, and people will be able to access good quality information and advice to help them move to Scotland and settle into their communities.

We are keen to harness the strength of TAMS in support of our rural and island communities, where specific current and future skills needs may differ from other parts of Scotland. For example, delivering a just transition to net zero will require a broad range of new or expanded skills within the workforce. To enable this, and in line with wider Skills objectives, set out below, we will aim to provide support to employers and key local stakeholders to utilise TAMS in support of delivering local strategic objectives.


The Scottish Government is continuing to work with business organisations and industry representatives to better understand the challenges employers face in recruiting and retaining workers with the skills they need and to support them take action to address labour and skills shortages.

As part of this, the Scottish Government has committed through the National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET) to implement a Talent Attraction programme to attract key skills and talent from the rest of the UK (rUK). Currently around 50% of inward migration to Scotland comes from rUK.

An Industry Advisory Group (IAG) for rUK Talent Attraction has been formed to share talent attraction expertise, to identify and develop effective approaches to attracting talent from rUK. This Industry Advisory Group has been exploring how best to shape a talent attraction programme which can expand Scotland’s talent pool at all levels, to give employers the skills pipeline needed to take advantage of opportunities, and ultimately benefit our economy. It is initially focusing on priority growth sectors, which will bring benefits to Scotland’s regions and wider economy.

Outputs from the work of the IAG to date include a collaboration with Brand Scotland to develop a recruitment toolkit for employers to use to support the attraction of talent to their sector, and a programme of activity aimed at attracting talent into the Space, Aerospace, and Allied Sectors (including AI, Photonics, and Advanced Manufacture). Activity includes a mentoring programme, a careers event, and targeted messaging to support talent attraction.


Attracting and retaining students

According to analysis done by London Economics for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the economic benefit arising from international students is clear, with the contribution of the 2018/19 cohort of international students in Scotland to the UK economy estimated to be £4.21 billion.

In the face of increasing competition from other countries for the best global talent, we are clear that the UK’s immigration system must be improved to allow Scotland to retain students after graduation and allow them to join the workforce or to set up their own businesses, through an inclusive migration system which meets Scotland’s future needs.

The Scottish Government continues to support the Skills Recognition Scotland project, a process which has been created to support individuals who have migrated to Scotland with valuable skills, experience, and qualifications obtained outside the UK, by benchmarking their skills against the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), and support employers to recruit talent and help address current or emerging skills shortage.

Rural skills

The Scottish Government is taking action to support the skills needs of our rural communities and businesses to attract people to, and retain people in, rural areas and ensure that they have the necessary skills to take advantage of employment opportunities and contribute to population retention.

For example, research on the Highlands and Islands that found some young people, who may want to stay in the region, leave so they can study, and it can be hard to return (SAPRS, 2019). Therefore delivery of targeted, relevant local learning opportunities can support wider ambitions to retain population within an area.

The Scottish Government and its partners, through the national programmes on skills they develop and deliver, are committed to ensuring that people in rural Scotland have the skills they need at every stage of life to have rewarding careers and meet the demands of an ever-changing economy and society.

The independent Commission to Review Land-Based Learning submitted their report to Scottish Ministers in January 2023. The Scottish Government has committed to producing a response to the 22 recommendations in the land-based learning review, with the recommendations that Ministers accept informing the Actions to attract and improve learning pathways to equip more people with the skills and knowledge needed to work in Scotland’s land- based and aquaculture sectors. This is expected to be published in early 2024.

The Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland (SAPRS) sets out our strategic, partnership approach to support the skills needs of the rural economy and has delivered considerable progress across all five priority areas of the Plan. It has resulted in better alignment of skills delivery to skills needs in the rural economy. It was a 2-year plan that reached maturity in 2021 and was extended to 2023 to allow its future direction to be relevant to current and future needs. Options for the next steps to support skills in rural Scotland are being prepared. This future direction for rural skills needs to take account of the broader skills landscape and the likely changes that will come forward from recent activity, notably the Skills Delivery Landscape Review, work underway to develop a Rural Delivery Plan, the Scottish Government response to the Land-based Learning Review, and the update of the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan (CESAP). All these, and other policies and agendas, will encompass rural skills planning and we must now consider how we take this forward as effectively as possible.

At a local level, Scottish Government funding has supported organisations such as Inspiralba to drive economic growth and deliver social and environmental benefits for communities across Scotland through, amongst other services, employability and learning pathways, with a focus on rural social enterprise. Working with partners from across the third sector, Inspiralba encourage individuals with a range of barriers to work, to access opportunities and progress to achieve their potential through access and progression routes. These different routeways can ensure access and inclusion for young people who may face barriers due to distance and rurality, or because traditional academic routeways have not aligned with their personal circumstances. This also ensures access and progression routes that can attract and retain young people in our rural communities, where depopulation and demographic shift are significant issues. In-work training also helps to build capacity in the rural social economy with the increased skills and confidence gained through accredited learning increasing knowledge and skills within businesses which are often micro in size but diverse and scaling deep in their local economy.

Case Study: Island Skills & Repopulation Project

The Island Skills and Repopulation Project was delivered in partnership with the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (CoHI) Population Working Group, which includes HIE, SDS, and CnES.

The pilot responds to a 2020 CoHI evidence paper about communities suffering acute population challenges and will test the impact of a targeted, place-based approach, which aligns with and responds to local skills and employment needs. The ambition is to support island-level population stability and sustainability and develop a better understanding of the potential to encourage repopulation trends in the longer term.

Following the delivery of the Island Skills and Repopulation Pilot, the Scottish Government is working with partners to commission an analysis of the three pilot areas in Argyll and Bute, Arran and Cumbrae, and Uist, to better understand the impact of developing a more bespoke, place-based approach to matching locally identified need with relevant skills development. The learning from this will help to inform future skills delivery across rural and island areas. Furthermore, through the Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan, work will be taken forward to explore how learning can be applied from Island Skills and Repopulation projects delivered in Argyll and Bute, North Ayrshire, and the Western Isles to address skills and capacity issues in construction supply chains.



Talent Attraction and Migration Service

  • We will launch the Talent Attraction and Migration Service.
  • We will scope options around supporting local attraction programmes delivered by local authorities through the TAMS digital platform, to signpost people interested in moving to specific parts of Scotland to relevant local information.
  • We will support local authorities and employers (e.g. through chambers of commerce and Regional Economic Partnerships) to harness TAMS in support of their local objectives.
  • We will enable local authorities to use Brand Scotland assets where they may support local talent attraction initiatives, building on an existing offer made by the Scottish Government in Spring 2023. The Scottish Government will work with COSLA and local authorities to identify how it can best support these initiatives in line with local priorities.


  • We will continue to advocate for a Rural Visa Pilot scheme.
  • We will commission further research on achieving an effective worker voice for migrant workers in agriculture.

6.8 Community Wealth Building

The Community Wealth Building (CWB) approach to economic development is a key tool to transform our local and regional economies, supporting the ownership of local assets – whether those are business, land or property – to provide communities with a greater stake in the economy and support economic resilience.

Work taken forward by the Scottish Government in this space, so far, has focussed on the economic development role of local authorities and Community Planning Partnerships to spend in their local communities through increased local procurement, local recruitment, training, and greater use of SME and inclusive business models to service demand.

Community Wealth Building encourages actions that support local economies to be resilient and thrive by developing local supply chains, stimulating procurement opportunities, supporting the flows of finance, offering businesses the opportunity to grow, and ensuring fair employment opportunities are available for people. The CWB economic development model promotes actions to support community ownership of assets and employee ownership of businesses, helping to keep wealth local.

These Community Wealth Building actions and the wider economic transformation it offers can support areas to retain and attract people to their localities, and in doing so provides a framework for harnessing local economic opportunities to address a range of challenges linked to addressing depopulation, regardless of whether affected communities are found in rural and island or urban areas.

Working with community anchor organisations, DTAS support the implementation of Community Wealth Building principles through local delivery.

Their Community Ownership Support Service (COSS) provides support or communities throughout Scotland to take ownership, management or lease of assets including land and buildings that are currently in public and private ownership. This adviser-led service helps communities navigate the process with access to advice, training and expert help. COSS also supports public bodies to develop appropriate processes to support the sustainable transfer of assets to communities. The DTAS Community Shares Scotland (CSS)/Local Democratic Finance (LDF) teams provide advice and support to communities across Scotland to raise finance through community shares, bonds, crowdfunding and other alternative finance models and a way for people to invest in what matters to them. This support includes guidance on setting up the necessary legal structures, tailored support to launch community share offers, financial planning, micro grant access and business plan review.


We will introduce legislation on Community Wealth Building during this Parliamentary term.

6.9 Blue Economy

The Blue Economy Vision was published in March 2022 and sets out the need for transformational change to create fairer, more prosperous, nature-positive marine sectors and communities. It sets out our long-term ambition for Scotland’s Blue Economy to 2045 by aiming to “create a shared stewardship of our marine environment supporting ecosystem health, improved livelihoods, economic prosperity, social inclusion and wellbeing”. At its core, the vision recognises that economic prosperity and wellbeing are embedded within nature, and in order to harness blue opportunities, we must transform our economy and society to thrive within the planet’s sustainable limits.

Under this Vision for 2045, we defined six interconnected outcomes to achieve collective social, environmental, and economic goals for our seas, coasts, and interlinked freshwater habitats. By setting out these six outcomes to 2045, this will provide a context for the development and delivery of future and existing strategies and plans and inform areas of development. Our outcomes will help provide focus on areas for investment and help establish shared goals with stakeholders in the public, private and third sectors.

A successful Blue Economy approach will mean pursuing all six outcomes in tandem, and ultimately, a transition away from conventional thinking that stipulates we must always trade off economic production against environmental protection, to instead recognising that we can achieve both.


  • We will work to build a collective ownership of our Blue Economy and empower key actors to support delivery and mobilise resources.
  • We will support leadership to drive cultural transformation to mainstream a Blue Economy approach across Government, and wider.
  • We will award up to £14 million of grant funding through the Marine Fund Scotland to support projects to deliver improved social, environmental, and economic outcomes in line with our Blue Economy Vision.

6.10 Workforce dispersal

The 2021 Population Strategy acknowledges the role of workforce dispersal in addressing population challenges, and commits to undertaking ‘a strategic consideration of [our] workforce footprint and consider the opportunities of a more location neutral workforce, with a specific action to ‘explore opportunities to distribute our workforce across the country’.

The Scottish Government has policy functions concentrated in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but delivery functions and public bodies have a much wider geographical footprint, thus stimulating local economies and communities across Scotland. The Scottish Government will continue to consider opportunities to optimise the benefits of locating public bodies across Scotland, whilst at the same time ensuring best value for the public finances and optimum service delivery. Our estate is under review to allow us to ensure we have the right buildings we need in the right locations, meeting our changing needs and net zero ambitions, while also maximising opportunities for sharing across public sector estate.

We are also committed to flexible hybrid working for our workforce, enabling staff to work from a range of locations and thereby facilitating our workforce to be much more geographically spread across the country.


  • We will consider how to best utilise our estate to support the ambitions set out within the Population Strategy, while harnessing the opportunities that hybrid working presents to distribute our workforce.
  • We will develop an Estate Strategy allowing us to set out a route map to achieve net zero and ensure buildings are right sized and in the right location, while maximising public sector sharing opportunities.
Gourock, Inverclyde

6.11 Methods of Land Ownership

Land is a vital resource that underpins the wealth, and the well-being, of our nation as a whole. The use and ownership of Scotland’s land is one of the central issues for the future of our environment, our society and our economy. As outlined in the First Minister’s Policy Prospectus, the Scottish Government is committed to introducing Land Reform legislation. It is proposed that the Bill should include three key measures that will apply to large-scale landholdings:

While the 2022 consultation on the proposals did not refer directly to addressing depopulation, some of the responses noted that there were possible socioeconomic benefits which might stem from the Bill’s proposals, such as through “empowerment, innovation and community ownership”. The body of research from the Scottish Land Commission, on which the Land Reform Bill proposals are based, note potential benefits to maintaining rural populations through ensuring better transparency of information, community engagement, and through the role of the public interest test on sales or transfers. Impact assessments, including Equalities Impact Assessments (EQIAs) and Island Communities Impact Assessments are being developed to support the Bill and will consider potential population and demographic impacts of the Bill proposals.

1. The strengthening of obligations on owners to comply with the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement (LRRS);

2. The introduction of compulsory land management plans;

3. New measures to regulate the market in large-scale landholdings, including the introduction of a Public Interest Test, and requirements for community bodies to receive prior notification of impending sales or transfers.

Community Owned Land

Published on 3 October 2023, the latest Community Ownership in Scotland Annual Report highlights that Remote rural areas (as defined by the Urban Rural Classification Index) contain 60% of community owned assets (456) and 98% of community owned land. A further 143 assets (19%) are in accessible rural areas, comprising just over 1% of the land area. While 21% of assets (155) are located in urban areas, these assets only comprise less than 0.5% of the area in community ownership.

The vast majority of community owned land is in Highland (24%) and Na h-Eileanan Siar (72%). All four of the largest community owned assets (over 20,000 hectares) are in Na h-Eileanan Siar.

Many communities pursue ownership of land both to increase local decision-making power in relation to the use of land and assets, but also to enable the delivery of locally identified priorities such as developing affordable housing. Community Land Scotland have provided multiple case studies of their members’ experience with delivering housing in their communities.

Rural Estates

In 2023, Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) published a report into the Contribution of Rural Estates to Scotland’s Wellbeing Economy. The report, undertaken by BiGGAR Economics, concluded that Scotland’s 1,125 rural estates (covering a combined area of approximately 4.1 million hectares, around 57% of Scotland’s rural land) have a significant impact on seven of Scotland’s National Outcomes and add substantial value to economic, human, social and (especially) natural capital stocks.

The report indicates that rural estates support rural population in a number of ways, including through the provision of homes (existing and new build affordable properties). Using previous SLE surveys and Scottish Government data, the report suggests that rural estates provide homes for nearly 13,000 households across Scotland. The report also includes a number of case studies highlighting how estate owned land has enabled the delivery of affordable homes such as in Rothiemurchus.


As set out in the Programme for Government 2023 to 2024, we will introduce a Land Reform Bill to the Scottish Parliament.


Throughout the course of summer 2023, the Scottish Government undertook preliminary research to explore the impacts of different types and scale of land use and ownership on depopulation outcomes in rural areas, particularly with regards to people of working age and young people.

Concentrated land ownership leads to monopoly effects over land use, which can be to the detriment of economic opportunities for local communities.

Communities often, but not exclusively, have negative perceptions of large and concentrated landownership. Importantly, these issues are not restricted to private landowners. Community buyouts are linked to enhanced community confidence and empowerment. Case study research demonstrates that, post-buyout, a number of communities have been able to improve their socioeconomic and demographic wellbeing, such as supporting new housing and enterprises. Within rural areas of Scotland, the prevalence of community ownership represents a real success story despite a range of challenges and limitations, such as volunteer resources and the high prices of rural land. The Scottish Government greatly welcomes these positive outcomes, be those economic, social, demographic, or in relation to housing and other local infrastructure, and recognises their ability to sustain local communities and enable population retention over the longer term. In addition, these outcomes can positively impact on informing people’s desire to move to a location.

Crofts can provide the foundations of environmentally and demographically sustainable communities, supported by their pluri-active nature, but may be vulnerable to the withdrawal of state support for agriculture. Furthermore, while the crofting right to buy has provided valuable security of tenure for crofters, it may also have exposed crofting communities to the effects of a competitive rural land market.

Scotland’s rural land market is experiencing strong demand, and this is partly driven by natural capital buyers. This may introduce more commercial organisations to landownership in Scotland. As part of the journey to net zero there is also potential for largescale land use change in Scotland, for the purposes of carbon sequestration or nature restoration. These trends may impact on communities’ relationships with landowners and may lead to rural job creation or job loss. This is an emerging area of research, with research commissioned by the Scottish Government due to be published later this year.

The research put forward the following recommendations which Scottish Government will consider next steps around:

  • Commission comparative research of the population outcomes of different types of land ownership.
  • Explore potential to combine recent 2022 Census and Land Register of Scotland data.
  • Collate evidence of best practice of community empowerment through land ownership and land use, outwith community buy-outs.
  • Commission research examining land-related population issues with a focus on working-age families.
  • Consider further research into the relationship between crofting and depopulation.
  • Engage with forthcoming research into the socioeconomic impacts of land use change and green land investment, when available.

6.12 Crofting

Crofting exists in some areas of Scotland with the lowest population density. Our National Development Plan for Crofting recognises that, with over 750,000 hectares of land in crofting tenure in Scotland, almost 22,000 crofts and approximately 33,000 people living in crofting households, crofting plays a vital role in maintaining the population in our rural and island areas, including the retention of young people and families. Crofts provide a home base from which all manner of economic activities may take place, including agriculture, tourism, and maintaining the natural environment.

Unlike other forms of land tenure, crofters are subject to a number of statutory duties.[7] Failure to comply with these duties can result in a crofter losing their croft. In return for compliance with these legislative duties, the Scottish Government supports crofting through legislation, such as security of tenure, and through schemes such as the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme (CAGS) and the Croft House Grant (CHG).

The CAGS and the CHG play a key role in supporting rural and island croft businesses and communities and indirectly support population retention. The CAGS is designed to aid and develop agricultural production on crofting businesses, thereby sustaining the economic basis of crofting. The CHG provides support to improve and maintain the standards of crofter housing, with the aim of attracting and retaining people within our island communities, allowing them to achieve the full potential of their crofts while generating economic activity.


The National Development Plan for Crofting highlights the core elements necessary to ensure that crofting remains at the heart of rural and island communities. The Plan recognises the importance of full occupancy and use of crofts and the significant contribution this would make to securing a prosperous future for crofting.

The Crofting Commission’s Residency and Land Use Team work to ensure that both tenanted and owner-occupied crofts are occupied and worked. Resources within this team have been increased in recent years, which has enabled the work carried out to be extended.

South Uist

In writing to tenant crofters and owner-occupier crofters who have either indicated on their Crofting Census Return that they are in breach of one or more of their statutory duties, or who have not returned their census but it is clear that they are in breach of their residency duty, available options are provided to the crofter for resolving the breach at their own hands. Should they fail to do so, the Commission will then take enforcement action in relation to the breach.

In addition to the above, the Crofting Commission will soon expand the current scope of the Residency and Land Use Team to include owner-occupiers of vacant crofts, and will subsequently take action against those who are not resident on their croft and/or not cultivating it.[8]

Tackling absenteeism in crofting will make more crofts available for potential new entrants, thereby supporting both population retention and the local economy of the area.

The Crofting Commission has also created a Crofting Development Team and has employed officers based in the Western Isles who will continue to engage with crofting communities and grazings committees to encourage active croft use and identify opportunities for new entrants.

Case Study: Croft Succession pilot

Crofts are in great demand, and so crofts which are not being used are a lost opportunity. The longer that a croft is not being worked, the more the land, the fencing, buildings, and drainage will deteriorate. This can make it more difficult and expensive for the next crofter to bring the croft back into use.

During the 2021 Islands Bond consultation, access to crofts was highlighted as an issue directly affecting population retention in the crofting counties. In October 2023, the Crofting Commission launched a pilot project to encourage crofters to consider the succession of their croft, particularly living succession.

The project aims to evidence the barriers to the transfer of crofts during a crofter’s lifetime whilst exploring how to encourage the transfer of them. In doing so, this will hopefully help direct crofts to people who are or would become ordinarily resident and actively utilise the croft land, including, where applicable, as participants in the management of common grazings.

As a precursor to this project, the Crofting Commission ran a crofting activity survey alongside their annual census for 2023 in which they asked crofters if they have a formal succession plan in place for their croft. Of 1,828 responses received, 44% said they did have a plan in place and 56% said they did not. This provides a further strong evidence base for this project. The survey will be undertaken again in three years.


  • We will reform the law, subject to agreement by the Scottish Parliament, to support the future of crofting.
  • The Crofting Commission will further expand its Residency and Land Use Team, and its remit, enabling it to increase its work in addressing absenteeism and bringing crofts back into active use, which will create opportunities for new entrants.
  • The Crofting Commission launched a croft succession pilot in Uist & Barra and North-West Sutherland in Autumn/Winter 2023/24. The findings from the succession pilot will enable the Commission to determine a targeted approach to successfully meet the actions in the National Development Plan for Crofting. The Commission will undertake a repeat of the crofting activity survey in 2025, to determine if the number of crofters with a formal succession plan in place has increased.
  • We will develop and consult on proposals to reform crofting law, create new opportunities for new entrants, encourage the active management and use of crofts and common grazings, and support rural population retention through action on non-residency.

6.13 Just Transition

Just Transition is about ensuring that the rapid transformation needed to end our contribution to climate change and create a climate-resilient society happens in a way that involves and supports our communities. We have committed to key just transition outcomes that include supporting thriving and sustainable communities and places throughout Scotland. Addressing outcomes such as depopulation is, therefore, an important component in a whole-society just transition.

The National Just Transition Planning Framework, published in 2021, outlines our approach to just transition planning. This underlines that our work in tackling the climate emergency must not exacerbate existing inequalities and must actively seek to improve them. We have committed to delivering Just Transition Plans for sectors, sites and regions throughout Scotland.

Earlier this year, a public consultation was held on the draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan and work is currently underway on sectoral plans for Built Environment and Construction, Land Use and Agriculture and Transport. These plans will provide further greater certainty for businesses and communities on the journey to net zero.

Further ahead we will be developing our approach to regional Just Transition Plans. These will aim to outline challenges and opportunities faced by regions and identify appropriate action to both mitigate and realise these. All our plans are underpinned by a commitment to co-design, ensuring that those who stand to be most impacted by the transition, including communities, businesses and workers are engaged throughout the process.

The independent Just Transition Commission will continue to advise and scrutinise our ongoing work. This will ensure we gather and listen to the best available evidence throughout.


  • We will develop our approach to regional Just Transition Plans which will engage communities, business and workers to ensure that we support the sustainability of communities including those affected by population decline.
  • We will embed the work of the independent Just Transition Commission as we gather and listen to the best available evidence when designing our approach.

6.14 Gaelic

The Scottish Government supports a number of Gaelic projects and initiatives in areas of low population and recognises that a lack of support for the language in these areas is linked to infrastructural and economic challenges. For this reason, the Scottish Government is supporting a range of Gaelic initiatives which contribute to local economies and regeneration, and recognises that Gaelic activity adds value to many aspects of Scottish public life. In addition, we recognise there is a role for bodies and authorities that have statutory functions relating to transport, housing, employment, connectivity, and culture to demonstrate what steps they are taking to support Gaelic as part of the delivery of their functions.

The Scottish Government welcomes the independent report on economic and social opportunities for Gaelic prepared by the Short Life Working Group, established by Kate Forbes MSP and chaired by Arthur Cormack. The report contained a number of recommendations which have been allocated to different SG business areas to consider.

The Scottish Government has also introduced a Scottish Languages Bill to the Scottish Parliament. This includes a range of provisions which will aim to support Gaelic-speaking areas of often low population density.

Isle of Mull


  • We will co-ordinate a response to the independent report on Economic and Social Opportunities for Gaelic, for the members of the Short Life Working Group which produced the report.
  • We will, through our independent Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population, scope future research about the ways in which Gaelic language and culture and its close association with land, places of learning and socio-economic opportunities can help towards retention of young people.



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