Synthesis of Evidence and Recommendations


Sparsely populated areas in Scotland are projected to see substantial population decline. Projections outlined in Copus (2018), for example, indicated that sparsely populated areas could experience an overall population reduction by 28% between 2011 and 2046. Differential impacts by age groups are projected to result in substantially increased dependency rates. It is therefore widely acknowledged that creating sustainable communities in these areas will require increased in-migration of young and working age adults and families.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Incentivise in-migration of young and working age adults and families in order to create sustainable communities.

Academic experts highlighted specific challenges arising from the spatial distribution of Scotland’s population. Scotland’s population and economic opportunities are concentrated in the Central Belt. Settlement in the rest of Scotland is much more sparse and often separated by large distances. Community sustainability is therefore a key consideration in shaping a future for many remote localities.

The Scottish Government’s definition of remoteness is linked to a 30-minute drive time to the nearest settlement with a population of 10,000 or more. Some sources in the literature further distinguished between remote and ultra-remote areas. In connection with the latter, anecdotal evidence from the academic interviews noted drive times to the nearest supermarket of up to an hour and inability to access key services such as hospital appointments within a day by public transport. The definition of remoteness is not fixed, and over the years connectivity improvements have redrawn the boundary, pushing back depopulation to more peripheral areas.

The research highlighted that policy response to rural depopulation needs to account for differences between accessible rural areas where population has grown in recent years, in some cases substantially so, and remote areas.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Consider differences between accessible, remote, and ultra-remote areas in policy response.

To what extent do Digital Connectivity and Physical Mobility (i.e. transport) impact on location decisions for people and businesses?

Decisions to relocate can be thought of as a two-stage process, with push factors reflecting choice considerations associated with the decision to relocate, and pull factors reflecting considerations informing the choice of a new residential location.

The literature review and fieldwork showed that these stages in the decision-making process are informed by a complex mix of considerations, including property prices and availability, availability of employment and education opportunities, access to services and amenities, landscape attractiveness and community and social capital. Focus groups emphasised the role of pull factors related to better quality of life and communities.

 There was evidence that employment was increasingly regarded as an enabler rather than a motivator and that physical closeness to such opportunities has become less important, at least in some contexts.

The weighting of the above considerations varies depending on factors including the characteristics of the individual, their previous experience and residential location, and their life stage.

Some sources in the literature suggest that for young adults, closeness to friends, peers and families, the cost of housing and closeness to opportunities to shape and progress their career dominated, with 18 to 24 year olds emphasising education, and those aged 25 to 34, employment. The panel surveys showed substantial overlap among the top five location factors stated by different age groups. All age groups rated affordability of homes, low levels of crime, being close to friends and family and access to shopping and amenities among their top five consideration. However, respondents in the 55+ age group regarded vicinity of green or open spaces more highly while access to towns and cities completed the top five for respondents aged 18-34. While housing affordability was a top factor for all age groups, it was more so for younger respondents.

In rural Scotland lack of employment and education opportunities were highlighted as major push factors for these age groups. In this context, widening acceptance of home-based working may offer an opportunity to address a lack of career prospects as a key driver of out-migration. Poor access to services also contributed to decisions to leave, the panel surveys highlighted that availability of schools and childcare mattered more for 18 to 34 year olds and healthcare provision for older age groups. Availability of housing emerged as a major constraint.

More recently in the UK, decisions to move are increasingly informed by the cost of living, particularly for young people.

There is little explicit emphasis on factors related to connectivity in the discourse around relocation decisions. However, while transport and digital connectivity did not emerge as key determinants, evidence from a range of sources including from house price statistics indicated that good connectivity can influence decisions to locate in an area. They also play a role in facilitating access to opportunities relating to a range of other choice factors, including employment and education opportunities, services, and other amenities.

This indirect role of connectivity in people’s valuation of locations was also evident in survey responses from Highland and Island residents recorded in Highlands and Islands Enterprise (2022). While a notable proportion of respondents in these surveys identified factors relating to transport and digital connectivity as key in enabling their communities to thrive, issues around availability of housing and employment received higher scores. This is consistent with the findings of the panel surveys. The surveys also indicated that the importance of public transport frequency was substantially lower for younger age groups. 41% in the 55+ age rated this as one of their top criteria in location choice compared with 22% of 18 to 34 year olds and 21% of 35 to 54 year olds.

However, while good connectivity alone might not be an explicit consideration, its absence is noted in areas where it is poor. Evidence from the focus groups mentioned poor public transport frequencies and high car dependency levels as barriers. In the winter connectivity challenges were said to be compounded by weather conditions. The literature review and academic interviews also emphasised the role played by high transport costs. Maximum acceptable travel distances to key opportunities and amenities were identified as a key constraint on location choice in such areas.

Conversely, improvements in transport and more recently digital connectivity have been shown to expand the search area people consider when choosing a new residential location. On balance good transport and digital connectivity may therefore be regarded as pre-requisite rather than a determinant of location decisions.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Good connectivity is considered a pre-requisite to enabling relocation decisions.

It is also note-worthy that individual definitions of ‘good connectivity’ are influenced by personal mode preference and the destinations individuals need to connect to. Reduced car ownership and ability to drive, as well as car scepticism among young people, may present a barrier to rural resettlement initiatives in this context.

To what extent are Digital Connectivity and Physical Mobility (i.e. transport) substitutable?

Information on the trade-off between digital and transport connectivity was often anecdotal. In many contexts, the review highlighted partial substitutability, with evidence pointing to the potential for the two approaches to be complementary rather than to outright substitution. Substitutability was also noted to vary substantially, impacted by inequalities around demographic factors and the quality of connectivity.


Academics highlighted analysis of census results for England and Wales which evidenced that 30% of jobs were carried out remotely in March 2021. The data was collected at the end of the third national lockdown, and there is therefore an implicit suggestion that in a high proportion of jobs (70%) physical presence is not substitutable. However, there is a substantial proportion that are, and evidence from the literature review suggests that remote working has become more entrenched, in part due to employers’ desire to reduce costs and in part due to employees’ personal preference. Evidence cited in Felstead & Reuschke (2020) suggested 88% of employees who worked from home during lockdown said that they would like to continue doing so.

With respect to access to employment, there is therefore some suggestion that greater uptake of digital work arrangements since the COVID-19 pandemic could fundamentally change the definition of remoteness. This could help address population push factors related to access to employment opportunities.

However, discussions with academic experts also noted that research at the UK level has produced no evidence that remote working will necessarily lead to large-scale moves to rural areas. This is demonstrated by analysis of census data which noted significant geographical variation. Remote working levels were above 60% in London and the South-East but only 10% in rural Wales. The suggestion is that digitally enabled remote working is more prevalent in areas that are already well connected.

Some insight into possible reasons is offered by data on differences in employment structures in urban and rural areas. This shows that substitutability is higher for skilled jobs in the service sector and for managerial occupations and in lower skilled jobs in goods production, for example.

Details of employment by sector for remote areas reported in Rural Scotland Key Facts 2021 show that sectors less suitable for digitally enabled remote working include accommodation and food services, agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors, which are more prominent in remote areas than elsewhere. It less likely that digitally enabled remote working could play a role in providing greater employment choice for existing rural workforces in these sectors. However, it may facilitate in-migration of working age people and contributions from academic experts noted anecdotal evidence from the pandemic suggesting that more people are considering moving to remote rural areas and working remotely or commuting longer distances on a less frequent basis.

Formulating digital interventions to support this will require understanding of the distribution of related population changes, in order to shape understanding of where to target such a response. Consistent quantitative data enabling such analysis will be available once results from the 2022 census in Scotland have been published.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Require detailed understanding of existing spatial patterns of digitally enabled remote working to develop spatial strategy for digital interventions.

ONS (2023) data suggests a strong link between remote working and incomes, with higher income occupations often better suited to remote working. Substantial in-migration enabled by digital remote working could therefore drive substantial change in rural employment and income structures. Based on qualitative evidence from the academic interviews the influx of higher income groups has adversely impacted existing problems around the cost and availability of housing, particularly in areas that offer amenities in terms of natural beauty or rural leisure facilities such as golf courses. In some areas this was reported to add to existing challenges caused by an increase in tourism and second home ownership.

Availability and affordability of housing was highlighted by all three strands of the research as a key constraint for initiatives looking to retain and attract population to remote areas in Scotland. While the evidence offered was qualitative and anecdotal, housing affordability is also substantially impacting on the ability to recruit staff for rural foundation industries such as farming and tourism and for the care sector. Reduced in-migration of people from Eastern Europe has added to staffing challenges in these sectors. There is a need for comprehensive research to investigate these interactions.

There is also some evidence, albeit anecdotal, that a considerable proportion of the influx presents as those in the 50+ bracket whose children have left home, so called ‘empty nesters’. The panel surveys also indicated that while hybrid working is common among younger age groups and acceptance of digital substitution of workplace interactions is higher, exclusive remote working was far less common among those in the 18 to 34 age group. It is unclear whether this is due to the nature of their work or personal preference. However, the evidence would suggest that generic policies specifically aimed at enabling remote working alone are unlikely to build balanced communities, counter-act the exodus of young people, or mitigate concerns over ageing populations in rural areas.

Consideration for policy response:

In intervention design consider impacts of in-migration enabled by digital remote working on:

  • local income structures, and hence on housing affordability.
  • the viability of rural foundation industries.
  • rural age structures.

Wider long-term adoption of home working also requires addressing barriers in terms of knowledge and capacity, regulation, capital costs, and cyber security. In addition, potential impacts on mental health in connection with exclusive remote working were widely recognised.

Academics noted that even for those who can usually work remotely, an occasional visit to their office can be a challenge from a remote rural location. Where evidence of hybrid working was observed; this was generally in locations with reasonably priced flight connections to Glasgow and/or London, or quick ferry connections to the mainland. Where the place of employment is within reasonable travel distance, interventions could seek to facilitate hybrid working arrangements, addressing concerns over mental health impacts of remote working, reduced career progression, and employers’ reluctance to engage with exclusively remote work arrangements, for example, through addressing connectivity or cost related barriers to hybrid working.

Mitigation requires further consideration, but could include providing support for local shared digital workspaces locally in a community hub or village hall. Such hubs may also facilitate innovative solutions for shared service provision, including shared transport and logistics.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Consider mitigation for transport related barriers to hybrid working.
  • Consider mitigation for individual barriers related to mental health and career progression.


On remote learning, ONS evidence suggests person to person contact was considered partially substitutable at best, more substitutable in primary, than secondary, and less so for arts subjects than sciences. Evidence from the panel surveys reflected mixed perceptions, with only 46% of respondents feeling that digital substitution in education was acceptable. However, acceptance was higher ( 61%) for younger respondents, aged 18-34.

Experience from COVID-19 highlighted equality issues around the capacity of parents to provide support, and variations in the ability of school to cover the required material. There was anecdotal evidence that in some remote areas, digital delivery in secondary education has improved subject choice without pupils having to relocate.

The vulnerability of local primary schools to closure was reported as a barrier for families with young children looking to relocate to remote areas. Challenges around the sustainability of rural services also increase staff transport needs, with sharing of staff resources for example across several primary school locations requiring complex logistics.

Lack of access to higher education has long been a driver of rural outmigration, particularly for the young. Scottish Government (2010) provided evidence that poor transport accessibility to education opportunities acts as a push factor at least in some rural locations.

The adverse impacts on rural age structures were noted in Copus (2018), which projected an increase in dependency rations from 0.6 in 2011 to 0.74 in 2046.

Digital delivery by institutions such as the UHI could play a role in retaining some young adults in remote communities and research in the south-west and west of Scotland provided anecdotal evidence that some uptake of remote learning by young adults living in remote rural communities exist. While there was a consensus in the research regarding the value of the opportunities and experience gained by young leavers, and there is no suggestion that policy should intervene to stop young people leaving, remote learning may offer solutions for some wishing to stay in remote areas.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Consider challenges around secure primary school provision.
  • Remote delivery in higher education may increase options for young people looking to stay in rural areas. Further research is required to understand the scope.


Evidence from the literature review highlighted that digital substitution in services is a key growth area, with significant growth in applications in teleshopping, telemedicine and online banking.

Telemedicine is a key growth area. Considerations informing substitution include medical outcomes, cost, and practitioner efficiency. Evidence from COVID-19 highlighted that scope for digital substitution varies by activity. In medical applications, for example, routine and follow up consultations offer scope for substitution, while more complex diagnostic consultations produced better results when delivered in person.

This suggests that while substitution of medical appointments could play a role in providing day-to-day medical services in remote communities, both transport and digital connectivity continue to be required to enable access to healthcare.

Consultation with the academics further highlighted that a drive for centralisation in service delivery since the economic downturn of 2008/9 has required residents in the north of Scotland to make lengthy journeys to Inverness to attend in person hospital appointments, for example to access maternity services. This suggests the role of transport links in providing for more specialised and diagnostic communities’ medical needs may have increased.

However, timetabled public transport services have not necessarily been increased. This was also reflected in the discussions during the focus groups. Participants generally rated the quality of local services as high but expressed concerns over their ability to access in person appointments. The focus groups stressed the role of contingency plans provided by the community in providing transport in medical emergencies. Community transport services may provide capacity for planned non-routine journeys.

Digital service delivery could also play a role in substituting physical access in such situations. In some remote communities in Ireland for example teleconferencing facilities in GP surgeries in have been introduced to reduce travel to the mainland for appointments in recent years.

However, drawing on evidence from the CDRC’s Internet User Classification the academic expert interviews highlighted demographic differences and spatial variability in internet use. This showed that residents in rural areas with poor broadband connectivity used the internet for shopping or banking, but often found connectivity insufficient for teleconferencing. As a consequence, there is a risk that closure of local services could lead to an increasing disparity between accessible and remote areas, as internet speeds in some remote areas are insufficient to fully access services online. To avoid such inequalities, any introduction of digital service delivery needs to be preceded by testing the capacity of local connections to support the required applications. Experience from the Irish initiatives could inform mitigation for such adverse impacts in the design of similar interventions in the future.

The study therefore highlights that challenges around rural service delivery are unlikely to have a single solution. In order to address the logistical and personal transport challenges around changes in the spatial pattern of service distribution, there is a need for a cross-sectoral response which should include participation from those responsible for planning transport and digital services.

The panel surveys also highlighted attitudinal barriers. Less than half of respondents felt that digital substitution of medical appointments is acceptable, with limited variation across age groups.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Consider how local provision, physical travel to services and digital connectivity can best combine to provide for the healthcare needs of rural residents.
  • Adopt a cross-sectoral approach to service planning including both representatives from departments responsible for planning service provision (e.g. health and education) and transport provision as routine.
  • When pursuing digital service planning this needs to be preceded by testing the capacity of local connections to support the required applications.

E-commerce and banking

Evidence on e-commerce showed high acceptance of levels of digital shopping. However, there was limited evidence that this reduced in-person shopping trips. The panel surveys suggested this holds true for rural populations in Scotland, despite the substantial distances involved.

Academics noted research to develop a Priority Places Index which highlights distance to food retail locations as a challenge to the sustainability of remote communities. Concerns around transport costs extended to deliveries, with remote communities refused or facing substantial surcharges, representing a barrier to the use of digital substitution in this area.

Evidence from the Scottish Parliamentary Information Centre quoted in Press and Journal (2022) notes delivery surcharges worth £45 million were incurred by residents in areas commonly impacted by parcel delivery surcharges. While the impacts and regulation requirements around such proposals requires Government legislation, the article reports commercial proposals to reduce such costs by using drones.

The importance of local shops in supplying local populations with a range of essential services, including postal services, bill payments, cash machines, grocery deliveries, and food bank usage was emphasised by the Association of Convenience Stores (2023). Their role was also noted by participants in the focus groups who expressed concern over long travel distances to supermarkets. There is evidence that some are affected by closures and the literature review and market research raised the need to consider equality impacts around digital substitution for these services, particularly for the elderly or less digitally able.

Digital technologies can enable local responses to increase rural resilience, for example through coordinating community transport schemes which enable access where local services have been closed and time-tabled public transport services do not exist.

In some smart villages, communities also use digital technology to help match demand and coordinate the use of pool cars to provide personal transport. Social enterprises such as La Exclusiva eliminate home delivery fees through coordinating orders which can play a role in addressing the cost of delivering goods to remote locations.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Consider barriers to delivery of online services around high delivery costs in remote rural areas. Technical solutions could include use of drones.
  • Consider facilitating digitally enabled community led solutions and social enterprises, such as community transport, pool cars and pooled deliveries.

To what extent do the above variables impact on depopulation occurring within communities?

Scotland’s rural population increased in 2021. Even in remote areas, digitally enabled remote working during COVID-19 has led to small population increases in at least some locations that previously experienced population decline. This is evidenced by NRS mid-year population estimates which show that population in these areas increased by 1.6% between 2020 and 2021, driven by a marked increase in net-migration. However, there is an evidence gap in how this increase is composed, to what extent it may address problems around population aging, and how it may affect the long-term sustainability of remote communities.

Natural population aging and the outflow of young people have unbalanced the age structure in many remote areas, making population levels unsustainable. This has created challenges around the viability of rural economies and the security of rural service provision.

Vibrancy of the rural economy

The relevance of rural businesses to individual location decisions is two-fold. Vibrant rural economies could address concerns over access to employment opportunities which have been noted as contributing to rural depopulation. The role of SMEs in the rural economy was also noted, and for owners of such businesses, business and residential location choice often represent a single decision.

Academic experts noted that connectivity improvements, both physical and more recently digital, have increased location flexibility for many industries. However, this flexibility is subject to limitations. Services such as hospitality require transport links to enable access from staff and customers, and industries such as farming, fishing and forestry are tied to the location of key natural resources. Businesses in key rural sectors of the economy therefore require a combination physical mobility and digital connectivity to thrive.

Digital connectivity plays an increasing role in supporting viability of businesses in key rural sectors including the creative sector, farming, and tourism, through enabling access to customers and information, assisting with business administration requirements, and enabling innovative production methods. However, many sources in the literature noted that the quality of digital connections often prevents digital technologies from optimally supporting these businesses.

Can potential future access interventions consider the above variables in the context of proactively supporting attraction and retention within locations of Scotland which have experienced, or are experiencing, population decline?

The literature review identified key intervention success factors for repopulation initiatives in remote areas. These include:

  • Availability of financial resources.
  • A holistic consideration of the full range of drivers and constraints when developing repopulation initiatives rather than focusing on a single issue such as connectivity.
  • A bottom-up approach, rooting such initiatives in the communities.
  • Targeting integration as well as attraction of new arrivals.
  • Enabling economic diversity.

A number of additional factors that apply where such initiatives focus on connectivity improvements have been identified in the course of this study, and are described below:

  • Need to consider un-intended consequences, for example those associated with pump-effects and local trade-offs.
  • Need to consider where to target connectivity improvements, i.e. strategic versus local investment.
  • Need to consider the need of groups that are key to community sustainability when planning connectivity improvements.
  • The need to account for barriers around the digital divide and the cost of connectivity.

Holistic consideration of the full range of drivers and constraints

Low transport densities are widely recognised in the literature, as a constraint on rural opportunities including access to education, job opportunities, and services. In terms of location choice good transport and digital connectivity have emerged as pre-requisite but not sufficient to attracting and retaining population and ensuring the viability of local businesses in remote areas. Evidence from a range of sources stressed the complexity of the drivers of depopulation in remote areas.

Some factors such as fertility rates and shortages in housing availability cannot be addressed by connectivity improvements. Transport or digital connectivity are relevant to facilitating access to opportunities in relation to others such as employment and services. However, discussions with academic experts noted that the spatial planning approaches for employment and services and for the transport networks and services required to access them have not always been joined up sufficiently. One example was the increased centralisation of medical services. Closures of local healthcare facilities together with a deterioration in public transport connectivity and reduced funding for community transport were noted to have left some residents reliant on emergency transport services to access hospital services in some instances. Integrated solutions are required to address such challenges.

Consideration for policy response:

  • An integrated policy response, considering housing, employment, service provision as well as transport and digital connectivity services is required.
  • Engagement with transport/digital network planners should be routine for any changes in service distributions or initiatives to move services online.

Consider unintended consequences

There is evidence that transport improvements such as the construction of the Kessock, Cromarty Firth, and Dornoch Firth Bridges have contributed to the revival of rural economies and communities. On the converse, poor transport connectivity was noted by the literature review and fieldwork as push factors in the context of individual relocation decisions.

While there was a gap in explicit research into the role played by digital connectivity in individual re-location decisions, evidence from house price statistics suggested that good digital connectivity does play a role in residential location decisions. There was also evidence that high quality digital network connections can increase the economic viability of rural areas evidenced by indicators such as the number of businesses, reduce unemployment, and increase pay.

This suggests that improvements in transport and digital connectivity can attract development and population, however, there is a need to anticipate and consider trade-offs that can see communities outside the immediate reach of such improvements decline.

Investments in strategic connectivity are often associated with pump effects, whereby improvements disproportionately benefit locations which were well connected to begin with. Such effects can put local businesses and services at risk. Pump effects have been highlighted in connection with both transport and digital connectivity interventions.

Existing populations in many remote areas are sparse and the number of newcomers required to invert population decline in many rural locations is small. There is therefore an implicit risk of unsustainable growth in some locations while other areas are neglected. A level of ‘over-heating’ in terms of population growth was noted in connection with some accessible rural areas, and in some remote locations the impact of incomers on local housing affordability was noted.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Consider trade-offs including pump-effects and local differences in the distribution of benefits, and plan for mitigation.

Transport versus digital connectivity

Changes in expectations, approaches to service delivery, and communication in general mean that good digital connectivity has become a prerequisite. During the panel surveys younger age groups emphasised considerations of broadband speeds in relocation decisions with 31% of 18 to 34 year olds rating this as one of their top location choice criteria, compared with 3% of those aged 55+. Good digital connectivity could also enhance rural quality of life and economic viability, so long as digital exclusion effects are overcome.

However, good digital connectivity has in many ways emerged as complementary to physical presence, be it through vicinity to opportunities, services, and amenities, or through making them more accessible through providing good transport connectivity. Evidence has pointed towards its scope in supplementing physical connectivity to services, reducing the need to travel in areas where physical access is poor. Digital tools could also improve the efficiency of rural transport provision through improving passenger information and aligning available resources to demand. Intervention to address rural sustainability through connectivity improvements therefore needs to consider both.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Take an integrated view of rural connectivity improvements, providing both transport and digital connections to facilitate the connectivity needs of rural areas.
  • Explore scope for digital tools to improve the efficiency of rural transport by improving passenger information and aligning available resources to demand.

Strategic versus local investment

Transport connectivity investments to address depopulation need to consider whether to focus investment on strategic or local connections in order to best support the viability of remote places. There is some rationale for both.

Academic experts highlighted the relevance of the local network of feeder roads and local bus services to enabling access to essential services. However, the role of strategic connections to the viability of key local economic sectors such as tourism was similarly noted.

Connectivity also plays a role in defining the search area for residential locations. In the context of remote working for example the time taken to meet requirements for occasional visits to the office may limit residential choice. Both strategic and local connections are likely to impact.

In the case of some remote routes the functions of strategic and local were noted to overlap. One example is the A835 which provides trunk road connections to the north-west of Scotland but also enables access to hospital services for local communities in the north-west.

Consideration for policy response:

  • A spatial strategy / planning approach should seek to limit adverse impacts including local trade-offs, pump effects and over-heating in some areas and neglect of others. It could also help weigh off the pros and cons of strategic versus local investment.

Consider the Needs of Groups that are Key in Building Sustainable Communities

Population projections discussed in section ‘Demographic, Work Patterns and Location Choice Context’ highlighted that pre-COVID 19 population trends were affected by two challenges in remote rural areas: negative population growth and an unsustainable age structure caused by natural population aging and the exodus of young people.

There is some indication that remote working during COVID-19 has to some extent addressed the first with some remote areas experiencing growth recently. However, the evidence reviewed suggested that a relatively high proportion of this may have been made up by ‘empty nesters’ or older working age adults whose children have left home, and as such may have exacerbated problems related to the unbalanced age structure of rural communities. Copus (2018) and other sources suggest that attracting young people and young working age adults should be a key target group when considering initiatives to respond to rural depopulation, and ensuring their needs are identified and considered is key to their success.

However, academic experts noted that young and young working age people are often a hard to reach group and there is a risk therefore that their needs are at times underrepresented. Public transport provision was cited as an example where network and service provision does not always account for the needs of the economically active.

Consistent research may be needed to understand the barriers for this group and ensure that their needs are represented in network planning and other interventions targeted.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Consider the needs of young and younger working age people in connectivity intervention design including network planning.

The research also identified a gap in understanding of the holistic picture which integrates the potential function of the different groups that make up migration, including those that wish to stay, returners, digitally enabled remote workers, digital nomads, and EU migrants. Existing research tends to focus on a single group.

Joined up research required to consider the potential role of each of these group in the context of community sustainability and understand how they can be supported.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Develop joined up picture of the potential contribution of different migration groups to sustainable communities in remote rural areas and consider targeted interventions.

The cost of connectivity

Transport affordability was flagged as a challenge in many sources, including Highlands and Islands Enterprise (2022). The Scottish Government currently provides public transport subsidies for people aged 16-22 and 60. Young working age adults are excluded from free bus travel but they are key in creating sustainable communities. Academics highlighted that rural wage structure often increases the vulnerability of this group to increases in cost.

A Scottish Government review of Poverty in rural Scotland: evidence review in A Minimum Income Standard for Remote Rural Scotland: A Policy Update noted that rural communities in Scotland are subject to a substantial cost of living uplift. The contribution of transport costs to the uplift was substantial. In 2021 a working age single person living in remote rural areas in the Highlands incurred weekly travel costs 73% higher than those living in urban UK. In Island communities the uplift was 40%. While digital interventions could offer mitigation by eliminating the need for some journeys, discussions above noted that the scope for substitution in many applications is affected by inequalities arising from differences in network connectivity and capacity of the population to engage with digital solutions.

Higher transport costs have also been noted in connection with the delivery of goods, with additional delivery charges for Island communities and some areas of the Highlands.

Evidence from the literature suggest that the cost of living has recently played a more prominent role in decisions to relocate. Anecdotal evidence also highlighted that returners often depend on family support due to the cost of living and this may prevent or impact on the long-term viability of decisions to return.

Policy initiatives to address population challenges through connectivity improvements therefore need to consider barriers presented by cost inequalities around connectivity, including transport costs and the cost of digital connectivity.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Consider mitigation for the impacts of transport costs, including public transport fares, fuel costs and delivery costs on rural costs of living for all groups including working age people.

The digital divide

The ‘digital divide’ presents a key barrier to policies seeking to enhance rural vibrancy through the opportunities afforded by improved digital connectivity. The term encompasses a range of factors that cause inequalities in communities’ ability to take advantage of digital solutions, including issues around poor connectivity, high cost due to limited competition, and differences in the level of digital adoption across communities. These factors may reinforce existing exclusion patterns, and equality impacts need consideration.

In line with the Scottish Government’s target to connect 100% of premises to superfast premises by 2021, much of the UK mainland is now connected to fibre optic broadband. However, evidence collected by the study suggested that a number of super-fast ‘not-spots’ do exist in remote, sparsely populated areas. The development of high-speed digital infrastructure was noted to show a similar pattern and be constrained by similar factors as physical connectivity, including cost, legal, and logistical constraints.

Newcomers and returners during and after the COVID-19 lockdowns highlighted that connectivity was not always able to support several concurrent demands. Literature documenting academic research with the owners of businesses in the creative sector highlighted that some found connectivity insufficient to support the competitiveness and viability of their business after moving to remote rural areas.

During the focus groups, participants who had recently moved to rural areas unanimously noted challenges with standard internet and mobile phone connectivity. This impacted on the cost of their connection as well as their ability to work effectively. Challenges accessing digital services were also said to increase the risk of loneliness in particular for old people.

In some areas affected by poor connectivity, alternatives have been provided by community broadband initiatives or satellite connections. However, opportunities to set-up the former are dependent of local community capital while the latter tend to come at a relatively high cost. Some investment in support would therefore be required to enable such initiatives to address barriers presented by the digital divide.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Meaningfully map and better understand barriers around the digital divide. Consider and mitigate their impacts on connectivity led interventions to address population challenges.

Root interventions in local communities

Due to their geographic spread, rural communities in Scotland are diverse in terms their composition, employment structures, connectivity challenges, and the capacity of the communities to drive solutions. This presents a challenge with respect to developing a one size fits all policy response to local population challenges. The literature review and consultation highlighted the importance of considering this diversity and involving local communities in shaping policy response to population challenges.

Evidence from the focus groups highlighted the role of perceptions around the strength of rural communities in attracting newcomers to rural areas. Consultation with academic experts also raised anecdotal evidence that a higher proportion of those who leave for education return, that they may be returning earlier, and that this may be related to a revived interest in local ways of living and culture may have encouraged this recently, including in the Gaelic language.

The role of local communities in driving local response to the challenges posed by remoteness was also highlighted. This can include informal solutions or community led interventions, such as community broadband provision, local remote working hubs, and community transport services. Examples were quoted where local communities drove the regeneration of places with notable success.

However, initiatives to support community led approaches need to consider how to support those in less able communities to partake. Unsupported, over-reliance on communities to drive interventions could create inequalities due to differences in their capacity.

Consideration for policy response:

  • Policy response need to consider the diversity of remote localities. Engagement with and rooting initiatives in local communities were considered key success factors.
  • Strategies to support communities in driving interventions need to account for differences in capacity and consider support in mitigation.

Limitations and Further Research Requirements

The above report discussed the complex factors contributing to household location decisions in the context of policy to address rural de-population in Scotland. The report considered the potential role played by connectivity improvements in enabling such a policy response, their importance largely emerged as pre-requisite but insufficient on its own.

It also examined the interactions between digital and transport links, and the scope for digital substitution of physical connectivity. Accelerated by COVID-19, partial digital substitution has become reality in many workplaces and in the delivery of many private and commercial services. However, complete substitution is rare. More often digital and transport connectivity were highlighted as complementary.

Looking at rural depopulation, the report found that digitally enabled remote working has inverted population decline in some locations, without formal policy intervention. However, a coherent picture of the distribution of these effects was not available at the time of writing. Neither was consistent quantitative data on the demographic composition of these population movements.

Digital and transport connectivity were shown to be essential to the development of sustainable communities but were also often found to be wanting. In order to develop connectivity interventions that can best support local community sustainability, further research is required to better articulate where improvements are needed, by whom and to what purpose.

This may include:

  • Developing understanding of what a sustainable community is in the remote rural context and how considerations related to digital substitutability of transport change this. This will require close work with communities to account for the local diversity of the challenges. It will also require cross-sectoral work to articulate local connectivity requirements and understand the potential role played by transport and digital connectivity.
  • Comprehensive data analysis to understand the spatial distribution and demographic composition of recent rural in-migration across remote rural areas in Scotland and understanding of the role remote working has played in this to-date, to inform the design of evidence based and spatially targeted interventions. One available, census data will provide a starting point.
  • Research to form a holistic picture of the impact different groups such as empty nesters, people leaving urban areas in search of a better life, and digital nomads can have on the short-term vibrancy and longer-term sustainability of rural communities, or otherwise, and to consider their respective contributions to sustainable communities together, the identification of barriers and concerns for each group and the development of targeted interventions for each.
  • Understanding of the impact of digitally enabled newcomers on existing populations and hence rural out-migration.
  • Primary research on pull factors and barriers for key groups such as young adults, families and returners, and how they can be supported and incentivised.
  • Better understanding of barriers around the capacity of digital network speeds and the ability of local networks to cope under concurrent demands how this relates to local requirements to develop a “hierarchy of need” to inform the development of connectivity.
  • Better understanding of the transport requirements of key groups when planning transport improvements and research into how best to meet transport affordability challenges, including with respect to public transport affordability, fuel costs and inequalities around the cost of and access to deliveries

The report has also highlighted the need to consider potential unintended consequences, including exacerbation of population aging, further restricting access to affordable housing and adverse impacts on rural foundation industries and essential services and digital inequalities.