Retaining those who already live in Highland and island communities requires the most “urgent focus” when it comes to tackling the region’s demographic challenge, according to area MSP Kate Forbes.
In some places the outlook is such a concern, it should be treated as a “national emergency” the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch has urged.
A recent report for Highland Council detailed how a drift of young people away from the area is making it difficult to deliver services, particularly social care, in rural communities.
Results from Scotland’s Census in 2022 showed a pattern of an increasing population in the urban areas around the Inner Moray Firth, and a shift away from places like the west Highlands, Sutherland and Caithness.
Between 2001 and 2021, the 0 to 15 age group in Highland dropped by 6.7 per cent, while people aged 75-plus shot up by 60.6 per cent.
Ms Forbes, who lost out last year to Humza Yousaf in a bid to become SNP leader and First Minister, believes that the longer an area waits without meaningful intervention the harder it becomes to turn it around.
More relaxed immigration rules for Scotland have been touted as one potential solution to halt rural decline, but Forbes suggested the immediate priorities lie closer to home.
Speaking to the Free Press she said: “We need to urgently focus on retaining the current population.
“It’s not just young people – but that’s a great opportunity. We need really good education, better provision of courses, particularly in the west Highlands, and critically we need genuinely affordable housing.
“I think if these things are in place then good jobs will naturally follow.
“But without doing this all of our public services will come under immense strain. It will be a vicious cycle where you can’t recruit to staff the public services, so you lose out on more people.
“And then people will choose to go elsewhere if they don’t feel they can access a sustainable health service, adequate child care provision and good schools.”
Ms Forbes called for a de-centralised approach to decision making and to ease planning restrictions in favour of affordable housing in areas where there is obvious demand.
She added that she was supportive of additional compulsory purchase powers being introduced as part of new land reform legislation, but called on public bodies to do more with the tools already at their disposal.
“Local government could, for example, be working directly with a community and could commit to building, say, four affordable homes in a small place,” she suggested.
“Where a community is in grave danger we should be looking at things like compulsory purchase (to secure land for homes). Affordable housing shouldn’t take seven or eight years for planning to be granted.
“If you wait too long you lose the young people you have. And if they go from somewhere like Elgol (for example), you’d then need to invest quadruple the amount of money again to attract others.
“When a school closes, it’s much harder to reopen. I would say we need to try not to let it close in the first place.”
As far as Gaelic is concerned, similar principles should apply, says Forbes when looking to the forthcoming Scottish languages bill.
A key strand of this is the creation of ‘areas of linguistic significance’ but what would this mean in practice?
Forbes view is to concentrate on island heartlands.
“We’ve invested a lot of time in Gaelic learning, while forgetting about protecting the Gaelic communities that we have already,” said Forbes, urging that money be channelled to “the areas that have most to contribute in preserving Gaelic.
“You have to protect the frontier of Gaelic speakers receding further,” she added. “That’s what history has shown us.
“To date no Gaelic community that has been lost, has been recovered – so don’t lose them.
“The languages bill, if it gets it right, should be like a levelling up prospectus for Gaelic speaking communities. It shouldn’t just look at a very narrow definition of language – it needs to look at communities and for everything the community needs to thrive.”
Article by Keith MacKenzie