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Council / SIC welcomes efforts to tackle rural population decline

Fair Isle. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council has welcomed a collective agreement from local authorities and organisations across the Highlands and Islands to focus efforts to combat rural depopulation.

The Convention of the Highlands and Islands, which is set up by the Scottish Government and has members such as councils, health boards agencies like VisitScotland, agreed at a meeting on Monday to “treat the issue as a priority”.

The convention also endorsed the government’s population programme to “make all communities attractive places to live, work and bring up families”, while it will also see councils and organisations work with ministers to develop solutions at national, regional and local level.

Shetland Islands Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said the issue of rural depopulation has already been prioritised by the local authority and the Shetland Partnership, such as through the work of Promote Shetland.

“The council therefore welcomes the commitment to prioritise this issue across COHI [Convention of the Highlands and Islands] and the commitment to collective action to deliver solutions to our demographic challenges,” she said.

Sandison said that after a period of “relative stability”, Shetland’s population has begun to show signs of decline.

Figures from 2018 estimated that the local population has fallen below 23,000 for the first time since 2010.

Between 2001 and 2011, however, there was a steady incremental population growth in the isles.

Based on 2016 data, the latest population projections suggest that Shetland’s working age population will decline by 6.3 per cent between 2021 and 2031.

“Remote rural and island areas in the Highlands and Islands experience negative natural change (that is, more deaths than births), which was not balanced by in-migration,” Sandison said.

“The demographic challenges will be exacerbated by proposed changes to EU migration.

“It is important to recognise that, for remoter rural areas and islands, attracting working-age migrants is the only realistic option to avert a downward demographic spiral.

“The proposed changes to migration policy is likely to have far-reaching implications for economic activity, the provision of services, and levels of general well-being in these areas of Scotland.”

Nationally Scotland’s population is at a record high of 5.4 million, but the increase is down to migration because the number of deaths exceed births.

Figures recently published suggest there will be 240,000 more pensioners by mid-2043, with the working age population set to fall by 7,000 over the same period.

Fourteen councils in Scotland experienced depopulation over the latest year to mid-2018 with most in rural or island councils, as well as areas in the west of Scotland.

Depopulation was the deemed the top priority issue by communities when the Scottish Government carried out a consultation before drafting its first national islands plan.

Addressing depopulation is the first strategic objective listed in the plan, which was published in early October.