Offering £50,000 to move to the islands won't tackle the real drivers of population loss - Magnus Davidson
But, I was born a year too late to see the end of the Highlands and Islands Development board, which was set up in part to deal with depopulation in the region, and which is now replaced with Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
To go back and tell those early pioneers of regional development that there would be an academic native to the region, working for a university of the region, and writing about ongoing depopulation in our island communities, well I would imagine it would feel like success and failure in equal measure.
The latest measure to solve that depopulation problem, the Highland [and island] Problem, is the proposed Island Bond. The Island Bond consultation was released earlier this week following a manifesto promise and the election of the minority SNP Government in May. The muted response from April has now been replaced with a fair deal of public scepticism.
The Islands Bond sets out to combat population loss with 100 bonds over the course of the parliament, of up to £50,000 to young people and families to stay in or to move to islands currently threatened by depopulation.
Little information on the practicalities has been provided, presumably awaiting responses from the consultation, but we do know that capital funding will be available to young people and families to support measures such as buying, building, or renovating homes, starting businesses, or ‘otherwise’ to make long-term lives in the island communities.
The emphasis on somewhere to live comes back to the major contemporary issue facing young people in island communities - housing. It is currently in crisis across many communities due to an inflated housing market, the increase in holiday lets and Airbnb properties and the lack of new social housing being built. The Islands Bond offers little in way to remediate these problems. In fact, an influx of capital could exacerbate the already inflated market.
Where there is potential, although acknowledging the risk of market inflation, is for the Islands Bond to be used for young people to access crofting, the land tenure system unique to the Highlands and Islands which has helped retain people in island communities for hundreds of years. Mortgages are not available on the purchase of a croft, but this may offer up an increasingly asked for solution which itself offers more avenues of grant funding to renovate or build homes.
It is argued, probably rightly, that communities need in-migration of people and particularly young people with children to be demographically sustainable. This is not a popular statement in some circles but against the backdrop of closing schools an ageing demographic, and in-migration of retirees, it is becoming increasingly important to acknowledge. One key challenge in regulating this bond for the government is what age do you put on eligibility?
An even more contentious issue is dealt with directly by the consultation which will try to establish whether population growth, which encourages migration to the islands, or population retention, which supports existing communities to remain, is more important. Putting aside the issue of the very real ability for local communities to grow in population with the right support, this will be where the bond could stumble and fail in garnering support from existing island residents
For islands to the west, the issue also clashes head on to another current debate impacting communities and outlined in the publication by a University of the Highlands and Islands’ academic ‘The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community’. Could the money be better spent supporting young Gaelic speakers in strongholds of the language and deliver multiple government aims? What about emphasis on the Nordic heritage of the Northern Isles?
There is an anecdote among island residents that incomers need to survive a first winter of long nights, bad weather, and limited transport links to get a true feeling for whether they can stay long term. How might a bond work if the new resident decides that island life is not for them, especially if the money has gone into a business rather than an easily sold home?
With so many factors at play, there is a risk that the caveats put in place to make this bond work successfully becomes its downfall.
Perhaps those responsible for delivering the Islands Bond can look to measures which have already been successful in population retention and growth to steer Island Bond funded residents, old and new alike, to success.
Last year, the university released its Islands Strategy, where key themes align with proposed bond aims on entrepreneurial support and attracting new talent and people to islands. The university curriculum provides students at all levels with the skills and expertise to thrive in our rural areas, all whilst working at home from their own communities. It would be a waste not to make the most of this resource which has arguably been the greatest success of the modern Highlands and Islands.
Our islands in community ownership also offer good examples of sustainable population growth. There was - and is – plenty of appetite for people to move in but it’s housing, employment, and infrastructure that needs the investment to service that demand.
The proposed Islands Bond can offer the opportunity of island life to new residents who may not otherwise have the opportunity. But we can be sure that when they arrive, they will be joining existing young people in their calls to remedy the real drivers of depopulation: ageing infrastructure, lack of access to affordable homes, poor connectivity, and failing ferry services.