Affordable Housing Key For Sustainable Communities

Reversing Depopulation in Rural & Island Communities: Arctic Connections 2020

The challenge facing most of Scotland’s rural and island communities is one of depopulation as people move into urban settings. For the whole of Scotland the challenge is one of an ageing population.

Scotland is not alone in having these issues and how other communities are managing this problem was the subject of an online discussion as part of Arctic Connections 2020.

Arctic Connections – a policy framework and a way forward for Scotland to explore its links with other northerly nations – had its launch in Orkney in 2019. Arctic Connections Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework

“Welcome to Scotland, A European Gateway to the Arctic Region”

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Minister in the Scottish Government for Economy, Fair Work and Culture set the scene of a Scotland which now has a population of 5.5million but which has a falling birth rate and which by 2043 will have over a quarter of its population 65 and over.

Population growth in Scotland has been driven by migration but with Brexit and the ending of freedom of movement that route is under threat. Inward migration has also resulted in a move from west to east in Scotland and from the more sparsely populated areas into the cities.

To support rural and island communities to sustain their populations and to encourage people to move to them Fiona Hyslop stated that housing was the key factor. This point was reiterated by other speakers and by participants.


The lack of affordable housing, second and holiday homes – these are factors limiting the ability of the young to remain in their communities. In Orkney there are also a large number of empty homes which have fallen into disrepair.

photo courtesy of Gavin Leask

Housing was also the subject of a talk in the Sustainable Orkney Conference.‘Homes are a national asset’

Jane Atterton, manager, Rural Policy Centre, referred to research done in collaboration with the James Hutton Institute which indicated that in some places 20 – 40% of the housing stock was either second home ownership or holiday homes.

It has become increasingly popular to cite the hutter movement in the Nordic countries as a way round holiday home infiltration into communities. Karen Refsgaard, Research Director, Norgregio, however, commented that in some parts of Norway, popular ski/hiking areas, there were too many huts. People had to be deterred from travelling to their huts during Covid because of the risk of spreading the virus. She also stated that many of the hutters, wanted the same facilities they would have in the city and that this was putting pressure on local services where the hutters pay no tax.


If we didn’t know it before we have certainly all been made aware of the importance of Digital Connectivity during this pandemic – even to being able to access discussions like this one. Despite much improvement in recent years there are still many rural and island communities where connectivity is poor – both physical and virtual.

This couldn’t have been more stark than the contribution from Martin Sheilds of the Isle of Kerrera Development Trust who was speaking from his car at a point on the island where there is a strong signal. His home broadband connection was just not reliable enough to join the meeting from there.

Digital connectivity also means people can work and study from home – no need to commute miles to attend meetings or to conduct business. Timothy Heleniak, senior research fellow, Nordregio, spoke about one of his projects, ‘Digital Vasterbotten’. Increasing broadband provision which enabled better services such as digital healthcare was stemming the tide of depopulation in the area.

His colleague, Karen Refsgaard, made reference to Alvdal Municipality, Norway, and why it is managing to not just stabilise its population but increase it. In this example physical connectivity is also key as it is on a main transport route.

It is clear with all the examples being discussed be it the Isle of Kerrera, near Oban or Alvdal, Norway that digital and physical structures must be in place to support population sustainability and growth in rural and island communities.

In Scotland the huge barrier to all of this is land ownership.

It is an odd state of affairs that it is easier to find out the ownership of land in 1915 than it is in 2018. Andy Wightman Who Owns Scotland

The Scottish Parliament actually has an Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee

Until the issue of Land Reform is tackled in Scotland, our islands and rural communities will continue to be limited in how they can develop. Unfortunately despite all their advantages for health and wellbeing – if there is no affordable housing and connectivity remains poor – depopulation will continue.

For 2020, like other conferences, Arctic Connections is online.

Click on the link to find out more information, how to register and how to view the event.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

3 replies »

  1. Fiona, you all miss out one other important consideration and that is Education. Nowadays with ever greater numbers of our young people leaving school and going-on to University or other Further Education and gaining qualifications, doctors, engineering, nursing, teaching etc but there are just not enough vacancies back in their home communities. Sure there are many more opportunities to work digitally but this only usually happens once a young person has been in employment for several years to gain experience.

    Definitely a good starting point and shows the Governments ‘Heart’ is in the right place but still needs some ‘blue sky’ thinking out-of-the-box. Perhaps a little touch of Jacinda Ardern thinking needed here!!!

    • Building houses creates jobs, not just in construction but in all the support services. Building-in physical and digital connectivity also creates jobs. Without affordable housing young people and families will move away to places where that is available (Fiona G)

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