Revealed: our rural towns on the brink

A derelict property in Campbeltown. Picture: Donald MacLeod
A derelict property in Campbeltown. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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A REPORT into sustainability in rural areas has revealed 90 of the most vulnerable towns in Scotland.

The Rural Scotland In Focus 2012 report, due to be published by the Scottish Agricultural College’s Rural Policy Centre tomorrow, placed 90 Scottish towns in order of “vulnerability”. The Argyll & Bute towns of Campbeltown and Dunoon were ranked joint first, followed by Girvan in South Ayrshire, Stranraer, and Sanquhar, both in Dumfries and Galloway.

The vulnerability index rated the towns on criteria such as the number of public sector jobs, the proportion of the local population of working age, the proportion claiming Job Seekers Allowance and a measure of income deprivation devised from the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

The report also suggests that Scotland’s remote small towns are more vulnerable than its rural areas, and that there is a cluster of particularly vulnerable places in the south-west of Scotland.

Dr Jane Atterton, one of the authors of the report, said: “Scotland’s towns have often tended to fall into a gap between rural policy, targeted at the traditional rural areas, such as farming, which receive money through the Common Agricultural Policy and other sources, and cities, which receive a lot of Scottish government support.

“Scotland’s small towns often fall into a black hole – the government does supply some funding through regeneration activities but it tends to focus on regenerating town centres and businesses, rather than recognising the broader roles of the towns in terms of providing a range of services for their local population.”

The index suggests that a cluster of vulnerable places exists both in Argyll and in the south of Scotland, while towns in Aberdeenshire, Perth and Kinross and the Lothians appear to be less vulnerable. In particular, places close to large urban areas such as Banchory and Blackburn in Aberdeenshire and Coupar Angus in Perth and Kinross, demonstrate more affluence and much less vulnerability. Of the 90 towns selected, the least vulnerable included St Andrews, Aviemore and Linlithgow.

Andy Wightman, author of Who Owns Scotland and a writer and researcher on land issues, said the report posed a number of questions. “The place of towns in Scotland is vitally important. They are economic drivers for rural hinterlands. But the report says nothing about governance. In 1975 we wound up the town councils. We’ve identified a series of problems, we’ve identified a role for these towns, but they’ve got no way of solving the problems because they have no power.”

He added: “Local government, meanwhile, doesn’t have enough powers, financial or legislative, and the traditional big drivers of rural economies such as forestry and fishing are all now centralised and run from Edinburgh and Brussels. The real point here is that there is a structural governance problem which needs to be tackled. The only people who can solve the problems of the economy in Campbeltown in the first instance are the people of Campbeltown. But the levers they have to pull are very distant.”

The index was partly compiled based on the number of public sector jobs in a town – many of which are under threat as a result of government budget cuts.

“We have particularly looked at the impact of public sector cuts and the associated problems of unemployment,” said Atterton. “Not only do people lose their jobs but then the income they spend locally will be lost, the services will be cut themselves, so potentially one of the things that has a knock on effect is that people will start leaving all together. There is potential for some long-term decline in these places if the issue is not addressed soon.”

Norman MacAskill, head of rural policy at the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, said the report also raised important issues about the role of voluntary organisations in Scotland’s rural towns.

“Rural communities often rely on voluntary organisations, and with the increased budgetary demands of the private sector that role is becoming even more crucial. We need more community-based projects in these sorts of towns, although of course there is always the danger that it becomes a way of off-loading all of a town’s problems on to its own citizens.”

The report also argues that little consideration has been given to what the implications of a low carbon future for Scotland might mean for those living in rural areas.

“This is not an argument for giving rural areas privileges over urban,” said the report’s editor, Dr Sarah Skerratt. “To enhance growth or development, inclusion and life chances in rural Scotland, policies must be tailored to address differing local characteristics.”