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.

08 Annex B: Research – supporting and informing policy development

The Scottish Government is committed to harnessing the strength of the research community in support of the design and delivery of interventions aiming to address depopulation. This is evidenced by the work of the independent Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population, and its report on Place-Based Approaches to Population Challenges underpinning the strategic intent of this Action Plan. As set out within this document, we intend to fully harness the expertise of this Group in future, including around enhancing our understanding around Gaelic-speaking communities in the context of population decline. Further to this, a range of research work being undertaken across the country supports this agenda:

Scottish Government Strategic Research Programme – Rural Communities and Rural Economy projects

The Scottish Government’s vision for the Strategic Research Programme (SRP) 2022 to 2027 is “to support research that is relevant, respected and responsive to Scotland’s environment, communities, its people and to the rural economy”. Through this programme, the James Hutton Institute (JHI) and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) are taking forward a series of projects, under Theme E: Rural Futures of the SRP, that will inform actions being taken forward through this Plan, as well as helping to shape future interventions aimed at understanding and addressing depopulation.

JHI SRP 2022-27 Projects

JHI’s “Realising change: working with communities to inform a resilient recovery process in remote, rural and island communities” aims to understand the distinct characteristics and needs of rural and island communities, how they change over time, and how we can ensure that we have a reliable evidence base to understand the diversity of rural communities. This research should help develop a better understanding of the changing population dynamics of Scotland’s rural and island communities.

JHI have a suite of eight case studies across rural and island Scotland, with depopulation an underpinning theme that will help to shape work to address depopulation in these specific areas, whilst also building an evidence base of approaches that may be replicable across other communities.

In September 2023, JHI launched surveys to understand the factors influencing the decision- making of rural and urban residents on places to live, and rural residents’ decision-making around transport and local food. Detailed spatial datasets representing the assets of places and people which can support a wellbeing-focused recovery are being developed to support this work, and understand their links with community outcomes (including population trends). This is one component of the project “Informing a socially and spatially just future for the Scottish rural economy: pinpointing opportunities, assets and support needs”, and will provide useful insight into the challenges and opportunities facing rural people, helping to shape more effective policy.

Previously, JHI had undertaken extensive research on demographic change and population projections in the 2016-22 SRP, including the definition of Sparsely Populated Areas and evaluating diversity in population projections and ‘untapped potential’ for repopulation within Sparsely Populated Areas. This work continues to help inform policy, including our understanding of rurality and influencing the language we use when referring to rural Scotland. Through the 2016-22 SRP, JHI also collaborated with Highlands and Islands Enterprise to identify how inclusive growth can be understood, and measured, at a spatially detailed level, within the Highlands and Islands region.[9] The resulting analysis influenced the locations of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands choice of “Repopulation Zones”.

SRUC SRP 2022-27 Projects

SRUC’s “Reimagined policy futures: Shaping sustainable, inclusive and just rural and island communities in Scotland (ReRIC)” project is undertaking an in-depth exploration of three persistent ‘wicked’ challenges facing rural and island communities in Scotland: (i) demographic decline and ageing and out-migration; (ii) the lack of affordable housing and; (iii) exclusion and marginalisation.

The research team is collating and reviewing the existing evidence on each of these topics, and gathering new evidence through both primary and secondary research. Taking account of current and likely future policy drivers and socio-economic changes, the project will provide recommendations for future policy responses to address these challenges.

Work so far has included a review of the evolution of rural and island policy in Scotland since the Second World War. This review is expected to be published in 2023/24.

SRUC’s “Project SRUC-E1-1 ‘Novel insights on Scotland’s rural and island economies” focuses on generating new insights on rural and island economies and businesses. Quantitative analysis of existing secondary data sources is combined with qualitative sector-focused interviews and targeted surveys (e.g. on digital connectivity) to generate a deeper understanding of rural and island enterprises. The project also includes work packages focused on community wealth-building, future agricultural policy and its impacts, and regional food economies.

This project…

Work so far has included in-depth analysis of accommodation sector businesses and the publication of the Rural and Islands Insights Report 2023. Work has also been undertaken to develop a new analytical framework and to explore new ways of defining peripherality. The latter, for example, takes data on the supply chains of businesses to explore their peripherality to their supply chain, rather than to e.g. Inverness, as an urban centre to which a business may only have limited links.

NISRIE team members are developing a policy brief on ‘Economic Infrastructure: Transport, Housing and Connectivity in Scotland’. The aim of this brief is to assess infrastructural barriers to rural and island economic performance (including relating to housing and digital connectivity) and how these impact on the lived experiences of rural and island business owners and employees.

JHI and SRUC Projects contributing to our understanding of Migration

Current PhD students, under the supervision of JHI and academic partners, are exploring island migration, and the National Islands Plan. This includes an investigation into the potential for the islands diaspora to contribute to healthy and balanced population levels, and how multiple coinciding crises are affecting island migration. These PhD projects may help to better inform understanding of migration to, from and within island geographies, allowing for a more nuanced exploration of policy.

A Royal Society of Edinburgh-funded Research Network on “Covid-19 and shifting mobilities: Exploring new migration flows into rural, island and coastal communities”, led by Jane Atterton (SRUC) and Ruth Wilson (James Hutton Institute) will be bringing together researchers from countries across the globe (including New Zealand, Japan, Turkey, Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, the Faroe Islands and Canada) working on migration flows into and out of rural, island and coastal communities related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A series of topic-based webinars will bring researchers together to discuss and compare the situations in different countries. Topics of focus will include ‘multi-local working’, relations with the diaspora and other related populations, the integration of new migrants into receiving communities and a range of other issues. The aim is to build strong collaborative research relationships on this theme in order to seek further research funding in future and to inform related policies.

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