Perspective: MPS Event on Rural Lives: Retaining Diverse Populations


Blog by Rebecca Kay, MPS Senior Researcher

On 30th September,  in a week where the Scottish Parliament endorsed a proposal for a bespoke rural visa pilot scheme for Scotland, MPS organized an event bringing together experts from the worlds of policy-making, research, and economic and  community development to discuss ways of attracting and retaining diverse rural populations. The event was funded through a collaboration with the Rural Lives project, led by Dr Emilia-Pietka Nykaza, and provided an opportunity for MPS to demonstrate how adds value to the impact and reach of academic research through hosting policy-focused dissemination and discussion workshops of this kind.

The event was held online to facilitate engagement with participants from all over Scotland and attracted an audience from across many, if not all, of Scotland’s rural regions: attendees logged in from locations from the Scottish borders to the outer Isles. 13 local authorities, 2 regional development agencies, and a wide variety of local, regional, and national organisations working on rural community issues joined the discussions, with over 75 people taking part. The build up to the event felt quite exciting as we watched new registrations come in almost every day, reconfirming our sense of this as a crucial issue for Scotland.  

Retaining rural populations is a topic of considerable importance and concern for Scotland and more widely across Europe and beyond. However, the role of migration, experiences of diversity within rural communities, and the complex reasons that prompt people to move to, stay in or leave rural places are not always foregrounded in discussions of rural depopulation. This event offered an opportunity to bring these questions together and explore their relevance for policy and practice.

Our first panel of experts featured inputs from Mike Andrews and Ben Jones, from the Scottish Government population team, Ruth Wilson and Jonathan Hopkins from the James Hutton Institute and Catherine MacNeil from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The panellists had been asked to reflect on current policy concerns and priorities regarding rural populations; challenges in attracting and retaining rural populations; and the future of policy for Scotland’s rural populations.

Mike Andrews and Ben Jones provided insight into the policy context for Scottish Government, drawing attention to the establishment of the Ministerial Population Taskforce and the publication of  Scotland’s first population strategy in 2021. This has placed emphasis on the importance of balance within Scotland’s populations, with rural and island depopulation as a key challenge. A wider depopulation action plan, to be published in 2023, will focus on cross-cutting approaches to depopulation challenges and the importance of working in partnership across national, regional, local, and community levels.

Ruth Wilson and Jonathan Hopkins presented work developed in collaboration with the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC. They drew attention to the diversity of population trends within rural Scotland and the particularly concerning picture in already sparsely populated areas. They noted that the demographic profile in some places means migration is the only viable lever for mitigating population trends. Linking community-based initiatives with policymakers and learning from other places, for example through the recent report on Approaches to Island depopulation in Japan, are important steps towards finding solutions.

Catherine MacNeil presented findings from the recently completed ‘My Life in the Highlands and Islands’ survey which asked over 5,000 adults about their experiences and perceptions of life in this part of Scotland. 63% of survey participants had moved to the region from elsewhere or had left and then returned. The survey found that amongst those who had moved to, or back to, the region, 36% cited better quality of life as a main reason, and this was especially so for those moving to rural and island locations. Access to services, housing and digital connectivity were noted as key challenges to overcome in attracting and retaining local populations.

After a lively question and answer session, Emilia Pietka-Nykaza presented findings from her Rural Lives research in Moray Firth. This focused on the place-making experiences and routines of diverse rural residents including international migrants, people moving from other parts of Scotland and the UK, and people born and raised in Highlands. It drew out the importance and interconnected nature of access to people, places and feelings of belonging in retaining rural populations. The qualitative insights shared are an important reminder of how feelings about and relationships to people and places, as well as more tangible access to jobs, housing and services matter in the decisions rural residents make about staying in or moving on from a place.

The morning finished with facilitated discussion groups where participants discussed how their own work, expertise or lived experience related to the information in the presentations. They explored ideas for policy and/or practical initiatives that could help support rural communities to retain diverse populations and shared their thoughts on the kinds of evidence or insight which are needed to support good decision-making in this area.

Feedback from the discussions emphasised the importance of joined up and collaborative approaches, linking work across different policy areas and bringing together national and local government, local stakeholders and communities. The need for a learning approach was highlighted, where different people and institutions are really listening to and can gain from each other’s insights. There was a call for better access to evidence that is current and sufficiently nuanced to reflect the complexity of people’s lives and how these impact on decisions.

This is a challenging area for ongoing policy work to which MPS is eager to contribute. We are currently seeking funding for work to map processes of policy design, implementation, and evaluation at local, regional, and national levels, internationally and within Scotland. We are interested also in thinking about how tangible material aspects of ‘integration’ or belonging intersect with social and interpersonal ones and how this might be reflected for example in local partnership schemes and integration support packages for new arrivals.

So, watch this space to see what we do next and sign up to our monthly newsletter for updates here.

A Recording of the rural lives event and a downloadable Event Agenda and Presentations can be accessed on the right.


Download File/Report (Event Presentation Slides)