Growing Scotland’s Islands: Can the National Islands Plan stimulate a population turnaround?
An opportunity has arisen for two fully funded PhD
studentships on the topic of contemporary migration to Scotland’s islands.
Building on existing research on rural migration, resilience and mobilities,
the successful candidates will undertake in-depth studies of the aspirations
and lived experiences of working age, in-migrant islanders (whether new or
returning) to explore the opportunities and barriers they encounter. Framed
within the aspirations of Scotland’s National Islands Plan which include a
desire to increase population levels in the Scottish islands and to ensure a
healthy, balanced population profile, the studentships will provide academic
insights and evidence of relevance to policy-makers and others seeking to
influence the demographic fortunes of remote and island communities.
The successful candidates will be jointly hosted by the
Department of Geography and Environment, School of Geosciences at the
University of Aberdeen and the Department of Social, Economic and Geographical
Sciences at the James Hutton Institute. One studentship is funded by the ESRC
through the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) and is open
to both home and international applicants.
One is funded by the Macaulay Development Trust and may be
awarded to a candidate eligible for home fees.
Further information about the project is available via the
SGSSS at https://www.sgsss.ac.uk/studentship/growing-scotlands-islands/.
The link includes information about how to apply. All applications submitted via the SGSSS
application system will automatically be considered for both the ESRC and MDT
funded studentships. Informal enquiries to the supervisory team are encouraged
in advance of submitting an application.
Eligibility: Applicants must hold either a Masters
degree or a first or upper-second class Honours degree in Geography or a
cognate discipline (such as Sociology, Anthropology, Rural Planning). Home and
international candidates may apply.
Closing date for applications: 31st March
Start date: October 2021
Duration: +3 or 1+3 depending on prior research
training (as set out in ESRC guidance)
Contributed by Ruth Wilson (The James Hutton Institute)
Over the next few days a survey will be landing on the doormats of 20,000 islanders across Scotland. The survey was commissioned by the Scottish Government and developed by researchers at the James Hutton Institute to measure the effectiveness of the National Islands Plan. It follows on from extensive island consultations held last year to develop the plan, and aims to gather perceptions of key aspects of life in island communities.
The questions included in the survey are wide-ranging and ask about housing, jobs, digital connectivity, health care and transport – aspects of island life that we know are vital in enabling people to live and work in island communities. It will provide baseline data for the thirteen objectives of the National Islands Plan and enable the impact of the plan to be measured consistently across the islands in future years.
The survey is being sent to individuals in all the islands for which we were able to obtain residents’ contact details. It’s important that the person named on the envelope answers the questions (with, if needed, the help of someone else); this will mean that residents of different age groups and genders are represented in the study.
Recipients can complete the survey on paper, online or by telephone, in English or in Gaelic, following the instructions on the front of the paper copy.
Thank you to BioSS, our Research Advisory Group, the Scottish Islands Federation and our cognitive testers, all of whom have contributed time and expertise to this project.
Contributed by Christina Noble (The James Hutton Institute)
Earlier this year in a pre-Covid-19 Ireland, a job advert for working and living on a remote island for six months off the coast of Co. Kerry went viral attracting over 24,000 job applications from around the world. The advert was pitched as a ‘dream job’, advertising a unique once-in-a lifetime opportunity to be caretaker(s) of the few holiday cottages available for visitors and the café on the Great Blasket Island. The previous couple who had taken up the post cautioned that there was a notable downside to the position . Their decision to share photos and videos from their time on the island was largely well received, but was sometimes met with negative feedback from those who felt the couple were commercialising the island and risking increasing tourist numbers when they had no apparent ‘claim’ to do so. The comments also spoke of the couple’s lack of Gaelic language skills which strongly suggested they had less right than a native Gaelic speaker over sharing their images and posts of the island. The Blasket Islands were home to a Gaelic speaking community that was disbanded in 1953 due to a diminishing population, aided by increasing emigration.
Moving and relocating to a remote island for a certain time I’m sure is not something one usually does without some research or realisation that maybe this might be a challenge? This is no doubt partly the appeal, a desire to escape everyday life for a time, but for those who live and work more permanently in not only island communities but other remote and rural places, that sense of ‘escapism’ probably seems a world away and what places mean for some will be different to others. This also serves as a reminder that within rural places, movement of whatever kind whether incoming or outgoing is perhaps felt more keenly as numbers here matter.
My PhD research took me to the western and southern counties of Ireland, including Co. Kerry, meeting with return migrants who were individuals who had grown up in Ireland, emigrated, and returned back during the mid-90s and 2000s. The majority too, importantly returned to the villages and rural areas where they grew up. I was keen to explore what return migration actually means for those who move, their sense of belonging and identity and this in turn led me to think more about the importance of rural Ireland to their reasons for return. Nearly all of the participants interviewed after being back in Ireland felt they were caught between different places and times, and it took a few years to feel that they were belonging to that place once again. Often the images and their ideas of the places that they were returning to didn’t match up neatly with the reality, and often in less tangible ways such as the rhythms of daily life. The participants themselves reflected that they were Irish alright but within a specific place or community sometimes not local enough, nor, fully a newcomer. Being caught between two different places was unsettling and any idea of an easy return was swiftly quashed. It also threw into question our tendency to imagine a return as permanent, removing the potential to move again.
A study in Whalsay, Shetland in 1980, saw Cohen reflect upon what it means to belong to a place, to be a part of the community, which he summarised as being part of a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone is part of a whole, so that if one piece is missing, it is felt by everyone. Whilst the jigsaw analogy can get sticky when we think about new pieces and changes over time, it does help to think how a singular act can have further reaching consequences. For the Blasket Islands, and a lot of rural Ireland so deeply affected by the legacy of emigration, movement of any kind can evoke deeply emotive feelings. Yet, there is a marked difference between a visitor for a day or two and someone planning to relocate for the foreseeable future. Furthermore rural places are themselves never static to begin with, and you can be certain of change regardless, it just may come about at a different pace.
Contributed by Simone Piras (The James Hutton Institute). The RELOCAL methodology and the scenario for Lewis have been developed by Andrew Copus, Margaret Currie, Dominic Duckett and Simone Piras (The James Hutton Institute).
The European project H2020 RELOCAL (“Resituating the local in cohesion and territorial development”), of which the James Hutton Institute is a partner, studies the issue of spatial justice across Europe by analysing 33 case studies of place-based interventions. One of these case studies focuses on Strengthening Communities, implemented in the Isle of Lewis by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
the Lewis case study, Hutton leads the RELOCAL effort to compare the logic of the
interventions and identify how these will contribute to achieving spatial
justice in 2030 scenarios for the 33 case study localities. A systematic
methodology was developed for this purpose. The intervention logic is illustrated
though a so-called “theory of change mechanism map”.
was selected as a case study because it is an island with a largely dispersed
population, far away from large metropolitan areas, and with comparatively
low levels of service provision. In the RELOCAL terminology, it is a case of
spatial injustice driven by “territorial
disadvantage”, which makes it more difficult to achieve
the same level of wellbeing as elsewhere. Other types of injustice identified
in RELOCAL include “neighbourhood segregation”, more common in urban areas, and
“place disempowerment”, typical of areas that have been declining for several
reasons. However, in Lewis a large share of the population (72%) lives on
community owned land, which is higher than anywhere else in Scotland, making it
an interesting point to build upon.
Strengthening Communities consists of two interrelated “actions”: supporting groups of residents (constituted as Community Land Trusts) in the process of community land purchase in the context of the Scottish Government’s land reform; and legally assisting them as they explore and develop opportunities for land-based economic activities (Community Account Management). As such, it aims at achieving a broad equivalence of wellbeing and opportunities for Lewis as can be achieved in more geographically advantaged areas. The first action focuses on distributional justice (fair access to resources), and is expected to trigger additional economic activity and employment and thus demographic sustainability though the innovative exploitation of land. The second, “soft” action focuses on procedural justice by developing community and individual capacity to act within the existing administrative framework. The pathways towards spatial justice activated by the actions rely on a number of assumptions: that the Trusts can identify sustainable revenue streams (which has been problematic for one of them after the end of energy subsidies); that opportunities to generate revenues from local assets exist (e.g. recreation, housing); that enhanced wellbeing leads to demographic sustainability; that the governance framework is responsive to local actors; and that “adequateness” of wellbeing is defined by stakeholders relative to local constraints. However, such assumptions derive from contextual conditions which may change in 2030: the presence of valuable environmental assets, primarily the landscape; a strong relationship with a local customer base as a replacement for economies of scales; cultural uniqueness (Gaelic language and the Free Church); and continuity of HIE support and of the Scottish Government’s inclusive growth approach.
scenario was developed by Hutton researchers in consultation with local
stakeholders. A trend which stood out is the enduring demographic depletion.
This is closely linked to a persisting neo-liberal economic paradigm at
global, European, and national level which promotes centralisation and
rationalisation, favouring agglomeration, and thus large cities. This will be
only partially counterbalanced by the Scottish Government’s progressive
response to decline, improved rural digitalisation, and the opportunities
generated by a milder climate (e.g. a longer grazing and tourist season). The unique
identity and the commitment of local citizens are thus expected to
become even more focal points to build upon.
identified in the scenario exercise will lead to less favourable contextual
conditions: limited opportunities to create value from environmental assets
compared to more accessible places; lower institutional responsiveness to local
actors; and loss of EU funds. As a result, the Trusts will have difficulties in
achieving financial sustainability and triggering economic activity, and the intervention
will need to adapt, underpinned by different assumptions. The new, “softer” path
towards spatial justice will likely centre on a renewed sense of belonging
rather than on economic growth, and the final goal will need to be downscaled.
The limited employment and self-employment opportunities will help
retain only a share of young people: out-migration of the rest of them will
be driven by an aspiration to urban lifestyles which cannot be overturned
through job availability alone. In turn, this will result in adaptation
to demographic depletion underpinned by a locally-defined sense
of “adequateness” and “autonomy”. The future intervention logic is
illustrated in the theory of change mechanism map below.
The scenario for Lewis echoes the story of many remote
rural areas which must compete with places benefitting from agglomeration
effects (i.e. cost savings thanks to closeness of many businesses, services,
and people) in the framework of an economic model favouring the latter. Similar
patterns of population decline and shrinking financial resources were
identified in most rural and sparsely populated places studied in RELOCAL. While
place-based interventions are definitely required to improve
wellbeing there, these are not enough if spatial justice goals are not
decoupled from economic growth and efficiency, particularly in the context
of population decline. Strategies of “territorial branding” centred on cultural
and environmental uniqueness also suffer from increasing competitiveness, with more
accessible places better placed to exploit them. The Coronavirus pandemic,
which broke out when the scenario had already been elaborated, has also shown
the vulnerability of development models centred on tourism. A different
narration of rural life, targeted primarily at (current or potential) young
residents, is thus needed.
Contributed by the ToWards Inclusive Growth team, including Jon Hopkins (Hutton), Andy Sarjeant (HIE) and Eilidh MacDonald (HIE)
Places in Scotland have often
been defined as disadvantaged or vulnerable based on an “in or out”
classification, often using a threshold level. Small areas in the north and
west of Scotland, for example, have been classified as fragile
based on a score calculated from recent population change, access to services,
income and unemployment. Although this definition is well-used, binary
classifications are inevitably limited. For example, they don’t capture
variation in the extent of fragility, describe how different indicators
interact, or identify challenges faced in areas which don’t reach the fragility
threshold. Broadly, they inhibit a more targeted and balanced approach to
intervention based on opportunities and needs.
Another widely-known indicator,
Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), provides a ranking of all Data Zones
in Scotland and considers seven domains. However, reporting of the
SIMD regularly emphasises the extremes – such as ‘top tens’ and the most
deprived 20% of Scotland. In this project, our aim is to produce a more nuanced
typology of small areas in the Highlands and Islands, representing areas with
similar characteristics related to inclusive growth. To provide a framework for
data analysis, it was vital to consider which characteristics and themes are
While inclusive growth is a fuzzy
concept, attempts have been made to operationalise and measure it. The
increasing policy interest in Scotland is evidenced by the production of an outcomes
framework by Scotland’s Centre for Regional Inclusive Growth (SCRIG),
consisting of five outcomes (‘5 Ps’ of productivity,
population, participation, people and place) to “…provide a consistent
structure for analysis and understanding of inclusive growth performance”. The framework
includes two key contexts: people and place, emphasising the need to consider
the outcomes from the view of different groups and locations. This framework is
accompanied by an Inclusive
Growth Outcomes Framework Dashboard, an attractive online application
enabling access to data for 26 indicators. However, no indicators are available
for areas smaller than local authorities. This is not a criticism, as the
growth research community in Scotland has prioritised the development and
improvement of the evidence base. However, for the purposes of creating a small
area-resolution typology, we decided to consider other frameworks.
The framework for analysis in this project reproduces the themes and dimensions of the Inclusive Growth Monitor. In our framework, prosperity consists of output growth (potentially measured by business activity and earnings), characteristics of employment, and human capital – the skills and abilities of people. Inclusion can be defined through evidence of (low) income, living costs (for instance, housing affordability) and labour market inclusion, potentially measured by employment and economic activity rates. In addition to representing these dimensions with suitable indicators, measuring local-level spatial variability is crucial in understanding inclusive growth, as residents’ local experiences and knowledge of nearby regions influence their perceived quality of life (see: report, article).
However, in order to increase the relevance of this framework to the Highlands and Islands, we have concluded that it is crucial to include two additional contextual themes which describe a location’s geographical and social characteristics. Increasing inclusion and prosperity can be the focus of interventions and investments (potentially guided by a suitable small area typology), but the additional contextual factors of geographical and social characteristics represent elements which can be less easily influenced by local-level actions (although they are not necessarily ‘static’). They can be major assets or challenges to communities, or factors which influence community resilience, capacity, or vulnerability.
The Highlands and Islands contains the city of Inverness and several towns, but also extensive sparsely populated areas and the vast majority of Scotland’s inhabited islands: access to services, digital connectivity, and the quality of transport infrastructure vary considerably. In addition, the landscape contains major environmental assets which may deliver community benefits: forests and peatlands, protected areas, and high potential for renewable energy.
Additionally, the strength and cohesiveness of communities and the availability of ‘social infrastructure’ (e.g. community centres, libraries) may affect local-level outcomes. We also feel that a greater understanding of potential social vulnerability: possibly indicated by the local population’s age structure, health outcomes, selected protected characteristics, and the availability of transport for those without cars, is crucial; as sustainable community development and genuinely inclusive growth needs to account for the needs and experiences of vulnerable groups, in addition to considering the availability of ‘human capital’. As inclusive growth can be conceptualised as addressing both regional and social inequalities, additional contextual indicators add important detail.
This framework, following review, will be used as a basis for indicator selection, and data analysis, which will be used to develop a set of typologies for the Highlands and Islands that represent areas with similar characteristics in terms of inclusion and prosperity, set in the context of the landscape and society and accompanied by a clear narrative description. The framework is aspirational, as ‘fine grained’ data, for small areas, is not likely to be available for all twelve dimensions: some compromises and adjustments will need to be made. We aim to develop and publish the typologies soon.
Note: this is the second blog from the ‘Towards Inclusive Growth’ project, funded by the SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Initiative. Through this project, researchers from the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Group at the James Hutton Institute and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland are working with researchers, economists and policy staff within HIE’s Planning and Partnerships team to create new knowledge about the characteristics of inclusive growth within the Highlands and Islands. This is our second blog from the project – the first followed a workshop in Aberdeen at the start of March. Since then, discussions and knowledge exchange have been necessarily online.
Written by Annie McKee, with contributions from: Dominic Duckett, Mags Currie, Carla Barlagne, Claire Hardy, Leanne Townsend, Sharon Flanigan, Ruth Wilson, Jon Hopkins, and Annabel Pinker
As a social science research
group, we spend much of our time undertaking social research in rural
communities and with land managers across Scotland, and internationally. We get
to know people and community groups, and follow their progress with interest.
During this period of global crisis, many of us are concerned about the impact
of the Covid-19 outbreak (‘Coronavirus’) on rural Scotland.
Through a series of blog posts, we have
shared some our social science experience to consider how rural Scotland can
and might respond to the Coronavirus crisis. We considered first the key
factors that underpin community resilience, followed by the impact on aspects
of Scottish agriculture, and finally the potential for positive change
post-virus. For each blog post, we collectively posed the questions: what do
we know already from our social science experience, and how can this knowledge
help rural communities, businesses, and policy makers respond? Here we
summarise this blog series and provide links to the underpinning research.
described in Part
1 of this blog series, many research projects in rural communities across
Scotland have sought to understand the key factors that underpin community
resilience. ‘Community resilience’ is understood as a community’s capacity to
adapt to change, whether as a result of an emergency
or cumulative, long-term transformation. Long-term rural decline (e.g. depopulation,
ageing, unemployment, etc.), as well as more sudden disruptive change, can
particularly affect the resilience of communities in remote and rural areas of
Scotland. Underpinning resilience in rural communities therefore relies on shared
understandings of what ‘community resilience’ means in practice, the
existence of positive
community capacity and social capital, as well as local community
resilience groups and social
innovation. These features of community resilience will be vital to support
rural communities during and after the Coronavirus crisis.
2 we turned to the impact of the Coronavirus crisis on aspects of Scottish
agriculture, in particular the value of collaboration and peer-to-peer learning
in farming communities. Research
has demonstrated that machinery rings represent an opportunity for farmers to
circumvent concerns relating to loss of independence and autonomy by accessing
collaboration as a form of service provision mediated through facilitators.
Examples of facilitation skills and networks being mobilised to provide
immediate support for citizens and businesses experiencing economic impacts
associated with measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 are already being
It is clear that the Coronavirus
outbreak has given rise to greater public awareness and interest in where our
food is produced, food supply
chains, and therefore arguably, how land is used for food production in
Scotland and beyond. In post-virus Scotland, we anticipate more people seeking
to access locally-grown food and a revival of small-scale food production to
meet this demand. It may be necessary to consider incentivising landowners to
provide access to land for smallholders and other new
entrants to agriculture.
Finally, in Part
3, we focussed on the how the virus outbreak may open up opportunities and
instigate advances in technology that could lead to positive changes in rural
Provision of services to rural communities, particularly those in more sparsely populated parts of Scotland, has long been recognised as a challenge and the Coronavirus crisis brings some of the consequences of this into sharp relief, not least access to healthcare facilities. Solutions arise with digital technology, including eHealth and online education opportunities, although these are not always easily adopted by older people.
Access to digital tools may help to maintain communication within and between communities, supporting the maintenance of social bonds. The greater everyday use of such tools will help to embed them after the crisis. However, it is important to identify inequality and rural diversity in Scotland, and whether all communities have the resources and local human capital to respond effectively. Critically, we may therefore underestimate the vulnerability of some more remote rural areas with an aging population profile, a relatively high proportion of self-employed workers and small businesses, and poorer access to services and online connectivity. This is an important consideration in the promotion of ‘spatial justice’ and wellbeing in rural communities, ensuring that opportunities are equitable and overcome the impact of a post-virus global recession.
The SEGS group at the James Hutton Institute seeks to continue to share relevant research experience and develop new research that will support all communities in rural Scotland in light of the Coronavirus crisis. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with research suggestions or questions.
It is in this
context that Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE): the economic and
community development agency for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, are
interested in better understanding how their place-based activities and investments
are contributing to inclusion. Discussions with social scientists at the James
Hutton Institute with a collective experience in place-based
policy and research in remote
and island communities, as well as indicator-based analysis
and an interest in measuring inequality, led to the ToWards Inclusive Growth
(TWIG) project which started at the start of February.
A key aim of
the project is to support HIE’s development of a set of typologies for the
Highlands and Islands that groups areas with similar characteristics in terms
of inclusion and prosperity. Outputs from the project will include detailed
area profiles reflecting local characteristics, informed by specific challenges
and opportunities facing communities. Set against a wider economic context, the
typologies and underpinning evidence base will provide a more granular picture
of inclusive growth in the region and importantly will inform the interventions
required to support inclusive growth over the long-term.
To inform this work, and to support strategic
research on place-based policy, a new cross-institute research and
information-sharing network has been created between HIE, the James Hutton
Institute and BioSS, and an engagement workshop was held on the 3rd
March. During the workshop, facilitated discussions took place on participants’
current understanding of inclusion and inclusive growth, characteristics and
frameworks needed to measure the concept, issues with data gaps and measurement,
and the challenges presented by the geography of the Highlands and Islands. From
these discussions, we collectively prioritised issues and identified key ‘SMART’ tasks to take
forward within the project, in order to produce inclusive growth-based area
profiles. The ‘after lunch’ session involved a planning activity, in which we
defined a logical order for the tasks, and discussed how we will work together
in the next one and a half months.
Further engagement will take place in March. To formally conclude the project, the Highlands and Islands area profiles and ‘lessons learned’ from this work will be shared and discussed at an online event (timing and format to be finalised). This will benefit from the involvement of the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC and stakeholders and practitioners with an interest in inclusive growth; community and regional development organisations will be invited to participate.
The team are encouraged by a very positive and constructive workshop in Aberdeen, and we hope that our work will contribute to a greater understanding of inclusive growth in the Highlands and Islands, as well as across Scotland more widely, and inform improved policy and investment decisions. Further updates on the project will appear on https://researchontheedge.org/, but if you would like to discuss this project or would like any further information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonathan Hopkins from The James Hutton Institute invites your feedback on an interactive map showing local-level indicators of wellbeing. Explore the map here, read the information sheet here, and take the survey here.
There are several reasons why access to detailed information
about places and communities – for small areas well below the national level –
is hugely valuable. In the context of inclusive growth and wellbeing, researchers at the OECD have
made three relevant observations: firstly, the location where people live has a
considerable influence on their quality of life and opportunities. Secondly, government
policies are not implemented in the same way in all areas, and the decisions
and investments of local policy makers (including Scotland’s councils) have a
major impact on residents. Thirdly, country-level information often masks major
inequality between regions.
The last of these three points is particularly salient, as
issues of economic and social inequality are rightly high on the policy agenda,
partly due to the correlation
between regional decline and political populism. In February 2020, an independent
academic inquiry into spatial inequality in the UK – the UK2070 Commission – published
report. This highlights the cost of the extreme regional differences in
wealth and investment within the UK, with strong development in London and
urban areas in the south, contrasting with consistent difficulties experienced
by northern cities and several smaller towns in older industrial areas and more
isolated (often coastal) locations. In the context of threats and opportunities
presented by future population growth and the urgency of reducing carbon
emissions, the Commission has recommended radical and broad changes in areas
such as governance, transportation, investment and housing policy.
Researchers in the Social, Economic and Geographical
Sciences (SEGS) group at The James Hutton
Institute are involved in research on place-based policies – development approaches
designed for different local contexts through collaborative knowledge creation.
As described by Jane
Atterton, place-based policies in Scotland are not new, as urban
regeneration schemes took place in the 1960s, but they have increased in
popularity in the past decade. Modern place-based policies
acknowledge the diversity of rural areas, and focus on improving several
aspects of wellbeing. Place-based policies need to be designed and evaluated
using a quality, spatially detailed ‘evidence base’: however, this is not
always present in rural
Scotland. More nuanced ‘place-sensitive’
policies have also been recommended more recently, which are “…tailored to the structural
prospects of different kinds of European regions”: the need for these
approaches to be informed by information and intelligence is clear.
As part of research funded by the Scottish Government’s RESAS
Strategic Research Programme 2016-2021, we have evaluated how multiple
dimensions of wellbeing (defined based on an established OECD
framework) can be measured at the ‘local’ or ‘small area’ level, as part of
our aim to understand the inequalities in socio-economic outcomes in rural
Scotland. It is possible
to represent a number of concepts via indicators at the Data
Zone level, either through existing statistics or by calculating new
indicators, although this is more difficult for concepts such as life
satisfaction and environmental wellbeing. However, we have recognised that it
is crucial to ensure that socio-economic data is usable and accessible to the
diverse communities, practitioners and stakeholders engaged in place-based
activities, as access to data supports
informed decision-making and community empowerment. Our stakeholder survey,
launched in winter 2018 following a workshop at the Scottish Rural Parliament, found
that the current online resources for accessing and analysing data are not
fully meeting the needs of end users, calling into question whether the
benefits of ‘OpenData’ are reaching everyone.
Last year, following the valuable engagement described
above, we published an interactive
mapping tool in ‘beta’ form which enables end users to produce maps of
indicators developed during this research project for regions of their choice,
and explore local characteristics. This application does not aim to compete
with mapping resources such as the excellent SIMD
tool. However, we would like to produce an effective and informative template
for publishing multiple indicators and socio-economic datasets. The application
was produced using open source software and
an improved version could be adopted and developed further by other groups.
The James Hutton Institute is a partner in an EU-funded ESPON project about “shrinking” rural areas. The consortium is led by the University of Eastern Finland, with partners in Sweden, Austria, Spain and Hungary. We are a little over half way through this 18 month project, and have completed a range of initial tasks, together with Inception and Interim Reports. At the heart of the project are eight case studies of shrinking rural areas in Finland, Germany, Spain, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria.
One of the strongest impressions so far is of the diversity
of shrinking rural areas in different contexts across Europe. Of course, there
are common features; most obviously overall population trends, and ageing.
However, digging a little deeper we find that there are many differences, in
terms of chronology, the relative importance of migration and natural decrease,
the drivers behind out-migration, current opportunities and potential, and
longer-term prospects for the future.
Despite this variety, much of the academic literature, and
policy thinking, seems to mostly reflect the twentieth century experience of
Western European countries, – in which remoter rural areas are drained of the
young and better educated, who migrate to cities for higher education, or to
further their careers, leaving their birthplaces with unbalanced age
structures, low fertility rates, high death rates and a dwindling working age
population. This mechanism is often embedded in regional development
assumptions about cities being the engines of growth, with rural areas
dependent upon hypothesised “spread effects”. Such assumptions are important
because they tend to condition the choice of solutions and policy
This Western European, and urban-driven, bias, is quite
ironic, given the reality that, since at least the turn of the century, rural
depopulation has been much more serious and widespread in the South and the
East of Europe. Here the process of shrinking has often followed different
paths. In the former socialist Member States of the East it has been associated
with the transition from planned economies, and EU Accession, triggering
international migration, which was often temporary, and involved low skilled
workers as well as the better educated. In Mediterranean countries the push of
reduced labour requirements as agri-business superseded traditional agriculture
has been a key driver, and not so much the lure of urban industrialisation.
Here in Scotland it is hard not to notice the increasing
attention paid to rural demography by the Scottish Government in recent years,
cross-referencing both to the discourse on access to land, and to the focus
upon inclusive growth within the National Performance Framework. With a wider
perspective, it is very interesting to see that it is also rising up the agenda
in EU circles, (including the Commission and the Committee of the Regions). The
creation of the RUMRA (Rural,
Mountainous and Remote Areas) Interservice Group perhaps reflects a shift in
the composition of the European Parliament after the elections of May 2019.
Publication of ESPON ESCAPE’s final report in the autumn will be timely. It
presents an opportunity to reconsider some of the assumptions of the academic
and grey literature, and to explore, in a pragmatic, evidence-based way, the
implications for policy intervention logics.
For example, there are a whole set of assumptions about the precise
objective of interventions to counter negative population trends. For
instance, in the context of long-established shrinking, driven more by age
structure than by current migration, is it realistic to talk about “growth”?
Would the required scale of in-migration be acceptable to the local community?
If, as in the recent draft National Island Plan, terms such as “healthy,
balanced population profile” are preferred, how are these defined in
practice? If they imply something short of reversing the population trend, is
there a role for policies which help communities to adapt to demographic
decline? If so, can the objective be articulated in terms of the well-being of
the remaining population?
Digging deeper, along with clarification of demographic
objectives goes the need to be explicit about motivations for policy
approaches to service provision, both public and private, which have a very
substantial role in driving, or responding to, rural population trends. For
many years now neo-liberal and new public management principles have held sway
in the UK, and across much of Europe. Economies of scale and cost-effectiveness
have been primary considerations. More recently a rights-based perspective has
entered the discourse. For example, Scotland’s National Islands Plan states, very
clearly, that “every
member of society has a right to live with dignity and to enjoy high quality
public services wherever they live.” This principle can be traced back to
the importance of inclusion in the National Performance Framework. Elsewhere, especially
in the Nordic countries the principle of “territorial equivalence” (that
you should not receive a lower level of services just because of where you
live) has been influential for much longer.
Thirdly, there are a range of questions which relate, in one
way or another, to the geographic scale of intervention. We need to think
carefully about the assumption that local communities know best how to respond
to population decline. Uncoordinated place-based interventions may have
drawbacks. We know that the vast majority of changes of address are
short-distance relocations, either associated with moves up the property
ladder, or with stages of the family life cycle. The main result of local
incentives to migrate into shrinking rural areas would likely be the diversion
of some of these short-distance moves, resulting in what the regional policy
evaluation literature would term “displacement” over boundaries, and (from a regional
or national perspective) a “zero-sum game”. Perhaps a national spatial strategy
could ameliorate this effect. Furthermore, in the context of the national
demographic decline which Scotland is facing, perhaps we should be looking to
recruit migrants from outside Scotland (or outside the UK)? On the other hand,
the capacity and readiness of remote rural communities to fully embrace the
consequences of globalisation are important considerations, with which an
emphasis upon self-reliant community-based development perhaps sits less
Finally, it is important to keep in mind the way in which terminology which was originally intended to be neutral becomes normative, or “loaded” with either positive or negative connotations. The term “shrinking” is a classic example. Already it is perceived by many as a negative label, which has potential to offend. Perversely, in the light of the current interest of the policy community, we need to beware that it does not become a “badge of honour”, in much the same way as GDP per capita became the key which unlocked EU Cohesion Policy funding. These are some of the issues which the ESPON ESCAPE research team seeks to address from a Europe-wide perspective. All of them, however, have considerable resonance in the Scottish context too.