Coll and Tiree to help halt Argyll’s worst population decline

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In a bid to halt one of Scotland’s worst population declines, Argyll and Bute Council has approved plans to turn Coll and Tiree into pilot ‘repopulation zones’ which, if successful, will be rolled out across the region.

‘Housing,’ it says, ‘will be a key focus of ‘repopulation zone’ actions to reverse the area’s population decline.’ Argyll and the Outer Hebrides stand to suffer Scotland’s greatest population falls over the next 30 years, according to a Scottish Government report.

A paper on ‘fragile communities’ presented to the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in October last year said: ‘Between 2011 and 2019, there has been population decline in Caithness and Sutherland (-3.9 per cent), Argyll and the Islands (-3.8 per cent), Outer Hebrides (-3.5 per cent) and Shetland (-1.4 per cent),’ with ‘broad stability in Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross (+0.5 per cent).

‘The population is projected to decline in all local authority areas between 2018 and 2043. The greatest declines are expected in the Outer Hebrides (-16 per cent) and Argyll and Bute (-15 per cent).’

The populations of the Outer Hebrides and Argyll and Bute were last recorded at 26,500 and 85,430 respectively, according to estimates by the National Records of Scotland in 2020, meaning both regions stand to lose thousands of inhabitants.

While Scotland’s whole population is expected fall due to declining birth rates, reduced migration, and rural depopulation, the Highlands and Islands face a distinct set of challenges, the report adds: ​’a narrower range of education and career opportunities compared to Scotland, below average wage levels in certain areas, higher cost of living, transport and digital connectivity.

‘The extent of the issues of population decline in Argyll and Bute, the Outer Hebrides and Caithness and Sutherland requires a targeted, inter-agency policy response. This should include the establishment of a sub-regional population response team to rapidly impact on population issues in the identified areas and bring forward a ‘repopulation plan’, including consideration of the establishment of a ‘West Coast Innovation Zone’ and other appropriate policy interventions.’

Now Argyll and Bute Council has announced its plans for pilot ‘repopulation zones’ in Tiree and Coll, which will then be rolled out across the region.

‘The national repopulation zone approach sees pilot areas taking steps to address their own particular challenges, and their experiences then being used to develop effective repopulation initiatives elsewhere,’ the council explained.

At its Policy and Resources Committee meeting last Thursday, the council agreed to make four pilot zones for research into issues affecting local population levels: the Rosneath Peninsula, Kintyre, Tiree and Coll, and Bute.

Councillors also agreed to take forward a pilot project addressing housing needs across all Argyll: ‘This pilot project will include employing a settlement officer for a year, funded by the council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to examine the availability and quality of housing across Argyll, and factors such as cost, legislative barriers, land supply, and infrastructure.

‘The council will develop work around these repopulation zones alongside the Western Isles, Highland and North Ayrshire Councils who have also identified zones in their own areas.’

The decisions will go to the next Convention of the Highlands and Islands on 25 October, as part of discussions about an inter-agency response to the acute population challenges in the Highlands and Islands.

Councillor Robin Currie, leader of Argyll and Bute Council said: ‘We will take that opportunity to press COHI and the Scottish Government on the importance of addressing Argyll and Bute’s population challenges quickly.

‘Having enough housing and of the type that people need is obviously key in making it possible and desirable for people to live their lives here in Argyll and Bute.

‘Our population is falling, and is predicted to continue to fall. To keep our communities and our economy going, Argyll and Bute needs local people to stay and others with key skills and investment, to move here.’