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Shetland faces population crisis

SHETLAND is to suffer significant depopulation over the next 25 years when the number of people living in the isles could drop below the symbolical 20,000 mark.

Those still living on the Old Rock will be, on average, much older. The number of pensioners is to rise by 52 per cent, the number of children aged under 15 will decrease by a third, and there will be almost 20 per cent fewer islanders of working age.

These latest finding of the Registrar General for Scotland, published yesterday (Thursday), are in sharp contrast to Shetland’s own aspirations to attract new people to its shores and raise the population to 25,000 over the next two decades.

In fact, Shetland is one of the few local authority areas in Scotland expected to suffer from outward migration, while Scotland’s overall population is expected to grow by 7.3 per cent to more than 5.5 million.

In contrast, neighbouring Orkney is likely to grow its population by a whopping 12.5 per cent over the next 25 years to more than 22,000 with a significant (18.1 per cent) inward migration.

Local politicians yesterday described these latest statistics as “worrying” and said they were not too sure why, despite good council services, low unemployment rates and a generally high standard of living, more people left the islands than chose to move north.

The council’s vice chairwoman of the services committee, Betty Fullerton, said: “It is very worrying, and quite frankly, I don’t know the answers.”

Council convener Sandy Cluness called these latest statistics a “wake-up call” which would make him redouble the council’s efforts to grow the population.

The council already is going through the painful process of adapting its services to match the future needs of Shetland’s changed population structure.

A massive review of education services is under way, with proposals to close a number of rural schools so more resources can be directed towards social care services.

Meanwhile, housing shortages have been identified as a hindrance to population growth and a programme to build hundreds of affordable houses are more or less in place. 

Head of organisational development at the council, John Smith, said the latest findings were no surprise as they were in line with the results of its own population and migration study, undertaken by Hall Aitken in 2008.

He said: “That study predicted the following changes by 2030 – a drop of 18 per cent in the number of women in the childbearing age group; a decline of almost a third in the number of school-age children; and an increase of 63 per cent in the number of residents aged 65 and over.

“Since the population and migration study was published, the community planning partnership has held a population summit to discuss ways to address the issues raised in the study. 

“Within the council, we’ve been encouraging services to take the figures from the study into account in planning future service delivery across Shetland.  A further summit on attracting younger people to Shetland is also due to be held later this year.”

Mr Cluness added: “The public services in Shetland are employing a lot of people. What we need to do is to look where we can increase employment in the private sector. So, I guess we have to redouble our efforts.”