In this article, local MSP Kenneth Gibson discusses the issue of depopulation in rural and island communities and talks of the ways in which the SNP government aims to address this.
Ivan Minguez Guillem, an Associate at the Local Government information Unit, Scotland, has started an interesting discussion on what he describes as “The puzzle of rural exodus in high income countries.”
Mr Guillem highlighted that as cities worldwide continue to grow, this is often at the expense of smaller communities, depopulating towns and rural and island communities almost everywhere.
In high income countries, people are accustomed to a high quality of public services, including health, education and culture. These are vital for a thriving society. However, rural and particularly island, communities sometimes struggle to deliver such services, often due to a shortage of skilled workers and affordable housing.
This is why the SNP Government continues to fight for and support rural and island communities, establishing the Rural Parliament in 2014 to ensure that the needs of rural communities are considered, debated and acted upon, for example through delivery of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018.
The Act works to empower communities like Arran to support economic growth and introduces measures to help meet the unique needs of Scotland’s islands now and in the future.
The SNP Government has also more than doubled ferry investment since 2007, with over £130 invested in Arran’s services alone; from cutting the cost of car fares on the Ardrossan route by 64%, to extending the dual ferry service in the summer from six weeks to six months, building a much needed new harbour and deployment of the £12.6 MV Catriona on the Lochranza to Claonaig route in 2016.
Despite the many issues relating to its construction, the Glen Sannox is likely to enter service on the Brodick to Ardrossan route in 2021, whilst a new £35.6 million Ardrossan Harbour will be built to serve Arran.
Another reason for people leaving rural communities is loneliness.
Although there is more contact with nature and often beautiful environments, rural settings can leave some people feeling isolated. Recognising this and the devastating effect that loneliness can have on people, the SNP Government last year launched its strategy for combatting loneliness and social isolation, leading with community empowerment and public service reform, recognising that people and communities know what is best for them.
It is clear that rural depopulation requires both investment and conscientious policy changes.
Investment in technology, and in particular faster broadband, is vital in supporting rural and island communities, as a strong digital infrastructure allows the delivering of cheaper and personalised health treatments, distance learning and electronic government services, without always requiring the physical presence of trained professionals to deliver them.
By the end of 2017, Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) had exceeded the target of 95% fibre broadband coverage across Scotland. They continue to strive further, with the goal of ensuring that every home and business across Scotland has access to superfast broadband by 2021.
The SNP Government has committed £600 million to the programme ‘Reaching 100%’ – the single largest investment made by any government in the UK in digital connectivity. Even though telecoms is reserved to Westminster, the UK Tory Government is contributing less than £21 million to the ‘Reaching 100%’ programme – just 3.5% of the total.
Meanwhile, through the Special Islands Needs Allowance, the SNP Government compensates local authorities, including North Ayrshire, for the additional cost of providing services to island communities and legislated to ensure a presumption against the closure of rural schools. I well remember working with the community of Corrie to successfully stop the closure of their school over a decade ago.
Of course, stopping rural depopulation is not only in the interest of rural communities but the entire country.
Rural communities often have a great influence on the management and cleaning of river basins and forests. They also help prevent fire and floods which damage the infrastructure that connects our towns and cities and allow people to escape from urban life for holidays and day trips.
One important solution to the issue of rural depopulation is to encourage access to affordable housing in rural and island communities and incorporate sustainability into the structure.
The SNP Government has notably made important steps in this regard, such as with the £25 million Rural Housing Fund and the £5 million Islands Housing Fund.
A live application from the Arran Development Trust is currently being considered.
To fight rural depopulation we must understand the deep and systematic root causes and continue to back Island communities like Arran.
The SNP Government will continue to invest in our vital rural and island communities, as well as our urban areas, while exploring partnerships that will benefit both.