HOLYROOD NOTEBOOK: Policies aiming to tackle Highland depopulation
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This month as part of its ‘Building a New Scotland’ series, the Scottish Government published its migration policy for an independent Scotland.
Through detailed policy papers, this series aims to set out a positive future for Scotland, whilst also addressing the questions that many felt were left unanswered during the 2014 referendum campaign.
Effective communication on the benefits of independence will be crucial to reaching those who are not yet convinced and building support.
Earlier papers have focused on currency, the economy, citizenship, energy, and climate change. Considering Scotland’s distinct population needs, especially in the Highlands and Islands, migration is another key policy area.
Despite having very distinct needs, Scotland’s future is determined by a Westminster government which says its ambition is to cut the number of people coming into the UK.
If past trends continue, by 2045 Scotland will have a smaller and older population with growth from migration no longer offsetting the growing gap between births and death. With a falling working age population, we face fewer people paying taxes and fewer contributions to public services, like the NHS.
In the Highlands and Islands, the impact of a shrinking population will be strongly felt. Just a few weeks ago, I met with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to discuss their new strategic approach.
Although the region is clearly bursting with potential, depopulation was cited as a significant barrier to achieving economic growth.
The loss of freedom of movement due to Brexit has already had an impact. The picture throughout my constituency is that once thriving sectors like hospitality, agriculture and fisheries are now facing severe labour shortages. Just recently, 45 per cent of tourism businesses in the Highlands and Islands reported that they were short-staffed. It is for reasons like this like this, that the Scottish Government has made re-joining the European Union central to its migration plan.
Between 2011 and 2019, there was a population decline in Caithness and Sutherland of 3.9 per cent. Post-Brexit, our population forecasts are even more stark. The need for a tailored migration approach is well evidenced, but the UK government have failed to engage with the Scottish Government on its repeated calls to establish a rural visa pilot scheme to help tackle depopulation.
EU membership won’t be the singular solution to population growth, our approach must be wide-ranging and considerate of our demographic needs. The ‘Live in Scotland’ visa proposed in the migration paper places emphasis on characteristics like age, education, skills, work experience, earning potential and language ability.
It will enable people from around the world to work, live and start families here, without employer sponsorship, if they meet the criteria set.
It also draws inspiration from the development of pilot proposals for rural visas, incorporating a place-based element to support migration to rural and island communities.
In an independent Scotland, we would also establish a compassionate approach to supporting refugees and people fleeing conflict and persecution. Unlike current UK policy, People seeking asylum would have the right to work and have access to both employability and state support. Those granted refugee status would also gain settled status in Scotland, supporting longer-term integration and reducing the need for refugees to have to go through additional administrative processes to stay in Scotland on a permanent basis.
This paper sets out a positive vision for Scotland, detailing how our economy and communities would thrive under a migration system tailored to our needs in clear contrast to the UK’s restrictive approach.
Maree Todd is the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.