Scotland’s Demographic Strategy

a cottage in the mountains Scotland
Like in Finland, remote ares in Scotland are sparsely populated.

Does Scotland’s Demographic Strategy resemble smart shrinking in Finland?

Like in Finland, remote ares in Scotland are sparsely populated.

Outside the Nordic area Scotland is arguably the most comparable country in Europe to Finland in terms of its size, geography, and demographic challenges. Like Finland, it has about five and a half million people, mostly concentrated in a handful of cities and some smaller towns. More remote areas in the North and West are sparsely populated, with an ageing and declining population.

However, there are also significant differences. The land area of Finland is six times larger than that of Scotland, so remoteness and sparsity are relative! The other fundamental difference is in local governance – Scotland is, in comparison to Finland, is strongly centralised. In general, local government (32 Councils) has comparatively little strategic autonomy, and involuntary adaptation of service delivery is the most common response to shrinking at this level. However, a handful of the worst affected Councils have experimented with mitigation initiatives, in the form of schemes to attract in-migrants or to apply the brakes to youth outmigration.

Overview of the Strategy

The Scottish Government recently published a national demographic strategy: “A Scotland for the Future: The opportunities and challenges of Scotland’s changing population”. Like similar documents published in Spain, Germany, and Brussels, this document is partly aspirational and partly an ex ante orchestration of many existing policy actions which – with hindsight – can be claimed to have beneficial side-effects in relation to the challenges and opportunities of the demographic trends.

What can this document tell us in relation to smart shrinking in Finland?

The first thing to say is that the 95 pages of text do not contain either the word “shrinking” or “smart”. Of course, this is not because there are no parts of Scotland experiencing population decline, or because national projections are positive. Indeed, the very existence of this strategy reflects Scottish Government concerns that, following Brexit and the end of Free Movement, the country’s population is predicted to decline. So why the reluctance to talk about “smart shrinking”?

  • In part it reflects the widespread scepticism or disinterest, within the Edinburgh political “bubble” in particular, towards European “policy buzzwords”. Strangely, this coexists with the “ruling” Scottish National Party’s stated ambition to re-join the EU after independence.
  • Secondly, there is a reluctance to use terminology which is perceived as defeatist, at a time when there is probably some optimism that all but the most inaccessible rural areas may benefit from post-COVID shifts towards “location neutral” work patterns for service activities.

The Scottish strategy is structured around four “key building blocks”. The first three of these concern national policies to respond to national demographic trends; mitigating ageing through addressing barriers to child-bearing and larger families; adapting to ageing by improving health care, quality of life for older people, and economic activity in older cohorts, and; encouraging in-migration, both from other parts of the UK, and from overseas. The fourth building block, the ambition to deliver a “more balanced” geographic distribution of population, is where we should look for evidence of “smart” responses to rural depopulation.

Balanced Population Distribution

The pursuit of a “balanced distribution” immediately makes the reader ponder what such a distribution looks like. This question is answered indirectly by an emphasis on the consequences of the continued drift of population from north to south, and west to east, or in other words, from rural areas towards cities, towns and accessible rural areas:

“Our focus in this programme is on population balance and the sustainable distribution of our population in a way that works with the characteristics of our places and local ambitions for change. We recognise that both rapid population growth and depopulation can bring challenges.” (p66) Depopulation “creates skill shortages, threatens community sustainability and puts pressure on public services”, but demographic growth “brings its own significant challenges in providing the infrastructure and services – housing, education, transport and health…”.

The implication is that achieving territorial “balance” is about both mitigation (slowing the drift) and adaptation (rescaling services in both depopulating and growing areas. Balance is seen as the outcome of the interaction of three “factors”: economy, services and infrastructure. COVID-19 and the (technology driven) restructuring of the economy are seen as catalysts for change.

The Policy Response

Discussion in the strategy document about policy responses begins by “talking up” the benefits of existing (national) policy, and subsequently considers what else may be done, at a variety of levels. This section may appear almost schizophrenic to international observers, since it appears strongly “top down” in style, and yet there are elements where “place based” approaches are emphasised.

The list of existing policy responses cited by the Scottish Government divides into three groups, the first being “spatially blind”, the second being horizontal, yet responsive to regional and local issues, and the third being explicitly “place-based”, or spatially targeted.

  • (a) National initiatives designed to support economy through investment (including inward investment), workforce (training) policies, housing policy.
  • (b) Infrastructure policy, including various initiatives to improve (rural) digital connectivity.
  • (c) A new planning framework driven by local community consensus and place-based objectives, and targeted strategies to support islands and city regions.

Turning to the question “What else needs to be done?”, the answer, is exclusively directed towards mitigation:

“Our focus in this programme is less on dealing with the impact of population change but rather focusing on the actions that need to be put in place to shift that change. Ensuring that Scotland’s population is more balanced across the country means exploring the significant structural changes that are needed to support attraction and retention in those areas that are losing people and thereby reduce the pressure on areas dealing with a significant growth in population.”

This ambition will be pursued through the post-COVID economic Recovery Plan, whereby the Scottish Government will “pivot to a more distributed regional model to address economic recovery, … and support a renewed focus on place-based initiatives.”

Thus three Councils are currently exploring the benefits of “a more regionally focused place based model for economic development”. Housing and planning strategy, including through support for “self-build” housing, will become a “key strategic tool” in achieving a balanced distribution of population. The potential for home working to deliver a more distributed, less concentrated pattern of economic activity is being explored through the piloting of “community work hubs”. Decentralisation of “anchor institutions” (public sector agencies, etc), paying attention to private sector opportunities in associated local supply chains, is also seen as part of the solution.

Some Reflections

  1. Like many policy documents, what the Scottish strategy, or more specifically the part on territorial balance, needs, is a clearer statement of the overarching aim, and the precise logic of the actions already taken, or planned, to achieve this. What exactly would success look like, and what are the stepping-stones (intermediate outcomes) which different actions would seek to achieve? How could progress be monitored and evaluated?
  2. Although “smart shrinking” terminology has been shunned, my impression is that, in recent years, policy effort, whether at national or local levels, has been responsive, and adaptive, rather than proactive and mitigative. On the other hand – perhaps because remoteness here is less extreme than in Finland – there is a degree of optimism that the long-established drift of population out of such areas might, in time, be reversed, as part of a post-COVID/Industry 4.0 redistribution of economic activity.
  3. Until very recently, the “arena” of the discourse about demographic change in remote rural Scotland was community development in the context of land reform, with some opposition from the “rewilding” conservationist lobby. Since Brexit the withdrawal of the benefits of Free Movement has been perceived by the nationalist majority in the Scottish Parliament as a threat to demographic sustainability imposed upon Scotland by Westminster. It has thus become a trigger for a shift towards more proactive mitigation, as a vehicle for “fighting back”.
  4. Despite the impression of being top-down in style, those familiar with the governance context will be aware of the very close ties which exist, especially at the local level, between the public sector and the third sector – voluntary and charitable organisations – often contracted by the councils for not-for-profit delivery of services. Often this means that it is the third sector where innovation and local strategic planning takes place, albeit within limits set by “arms-length” coordination of national strategy and local public sector commissioning.

Clearly the Scottish strategy contains food for thought for smart shrinking in Finland, though extracting transferable principles or innovative practices correctly requires careful interpretation of contextual factors, particularly in the field of governance.