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The much-delayed Scottish Government blueprint to tackle depopulation in rural Scotland has finally been published.

The action plan sets out how the central government and local communities can tackle the significant population decline in the islands, Highlands and elsewhere in rural areas of Scotland.

The strategy builds on the work of the Ministerial Population Taskforce in delivering Scotland’s Population Strategy, which was published in March 2021 in response to data from many rural and island areas. 

However, yesterday’s publication of the depopulation action plan has come in for criticism.

Among the critics was Scottish Labour Rural Affairs, Islands and Land Reform Spokesperson Rhoda Grant MSP.

The Stornoway-born MSP said the document set out the background but offered “very little new information.”

She hit out: “There are a host of old commitments and rehashed ideas, with a promise to further explore and engage with groups to find solutions. This was a missed opportunity to take action rather than further consultations and task forces.

“For rural communities to have faith in this government, it is important now to turn the words into action; deliver not delay is the message.”

The MSP continued that she welcomed the publication as it examined why people are leaving rural areas and what factors affect in-migration. And she welcomed the commitment to conduct a population impact assessment and make some funding available as a “signal in the right direction.”

“There was scope for introducing new policies based on recommendations and evidence gathered, yet there is a familiar statement of further engagement, discussions and more consultation. This strikes of inaction and will further delay meaningful interventions,” the Labour MSP claimed.

Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone said: “I wish the Scottish Government pursued the delivery of reliable local health services with the enthusiasm that it launches reports which never lead to anything.

“People who live in the Highlands and islands have been clear about what we need.

“That starts with improved roads, universal fast broadband and the provision of homes so that local people are not forced out of the area.

“Simply badging up the government’s existing work as a plan for the future and calling it a day massively undersells the scale of the challenge.”

The 2022 Census made for alarming reading locally, showing a 5.5% drop in the population of the Western Isles over the past decade. 

The key statistics from the Census were:

* The estimated population in the Western Isles is 26,200 (rounded to the nearest hundred). This is a 5.5% (-1,500 persons) decrease since the 2011 Census (27,684) and the highest percentage decrease in Scotland.

* The Western Isles has the 3rd highest percentage of those aged 65+ at 26.6% (Argyll & Bute highest at 27.2%)

* The Western Isles has the 4th lowest percentage of those in the 15-64 age group (Dumfries and Galloway lowest at 58.7%)

* The Western Isles has the 4th lowest of those in the 0-14 age group at 14.1% (Argyll & Bute lowest at 13.6%)

* The response rate in the Western Isles was the highest in Scotland at 94.2%, whilst the national return was 89%.

In her foreword, Emma Roddick, Scottish Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees, says: “In this Action Plan, we set out actions to take forward at both a local and national level, to address the very real challenges Scotland faces as a result of depopulation. 

“It puts firm action into place which establishes depopulation as a priority area of focus for the Scottish Government and will enable us, over time, to achieve our aim of a sustainable distribution of our population, in a way that works for places and enables local ambitions for change. 

“The Scottish Government is committed to taking a genuine partnership approach to the development and delivery of the Action Plan, which is why we have engaged with a wide range of local, regional, and national stakeholders to ensure that this plan is collaborative, coherent, and reflects action which can be taken from community to national level in order to best support communities to thrive.”

The full Scottish Government depopulation plan is available here.