Concerns have been raised over a report for the Scottish government on how to tackle the depopulation of Scottish islands.
While Scotland’s Rural College’s research into how the problem is handled on the Japanese islands is described as ‘valuable’, there are concerns that parts of it could be used to justify letting island communities ‘sink or swim’ “.
Rhoda Meek, founder of Isle Develop Community Interest Company, said elements of the report “chilled her blood” because they could be used to support inaction on critical issues.
It is particularly disturbing, she said, to see how the report has shed light on debates in Japan about whether the revitalization of remote rural communities is possible or even “desirable” in the context of the goals of climate change, Japan’s persistently low birth rate, “emigration” and an aging population.
“It certainly does not allay my concern that elements of this report could be used to justify a future policy of letting island communities sink or swim, which many communities already feel,” she said.
Meek added that she was also concerned about a reference to Japan’s focus on “softer” tourism projects rather than infrastructure projects, which she said could be used in the future to justify a shortfall. investment in infrastructure on Scottish islands.
“We need to recognize that these soft approaches in Japan are in addition to a long-term policy of infrastructure investment and look at the basic infrastructure differences between the two countries at present,” she said. declared.
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“Infrastructure projects and investments in housing, education and our existing population are necessary if we are to attract and retain the immigration mentioned.”
Meek said she understands depopulation is so severe on many Japanese islands that finding accommodation is not a problem for people wishing to move there.
“We have to recognize that this is one of the biggest differences between Scotland and Japan and something needs to be resolved before a lot of the learnings can be truly reflected,” she said. declared.
Meek added that while the report’s reference to Japanese “housing banks” listing vacant homes for potential buyers was a “good idea”, it was not appropriate for the Scottish islands. Unlike in Japan, most empty houses on the islands are not abandoned, she pointed out, but belong to people living elsewhere and often deliberately empty.
“It desperately needs to be addressed by this government and there are absolutely steps that could be taken now, with the powers that exist, to tackle this problem,” Meek said.
“The things we often lose are infrastructure – including transport, housing, communication technology, services and schools. These are the same things that often make it difficult to detain migrants.
Martainn Mac a’ Bhaillidh, of the Gaelic campaign group Misneachd, echoed Meek’s concerns.
“The Scottish government seems to be sticking together to avoid recognizing what people on the islands tell them they need,” he said. “They seem convinced that they need to repopulate the islands with people from elsewhere, bribed and persuaded to move, rather than tackling the structural and economic issues that lead to depopulation – jobs, housing and infrastructure!
They are right that infrastructure shouldn’t necessarily mean bridges or tunnels, but it should mean roads, ports, ferries and broadband.
“What we need is a fit-for-purpose ferry fleet and good rural broadband connectivity. We need the government to invest in industry and job creation on the islands, we need them to move high paying jobs to the islands and regulate the housing market.
A spokesperson for SkyeConnect, the destination management organization for Skye and Raasay, said the common denominator between island communities in Japan and Scotland was “the failure of free market conditions to combat the housing shortage”.
“It’s a mix of historical and current socio-economic issues,” the spokesperson said. “We note that while both places have housing issues, inheritance laws and local belief systems in Japan create a slightly different environment.
“The problem of vacant or derelict properties was certainly a problem on the islands here 40 or 50 years ago, but economic growth and a pattern of internal migration have helped to solve this problem.
“It is encouraging to see that the Croftings Commission is continuing this work in identifying absent or neglectful crofters, which should result in the availability of more land for native islanders and those who choose to settle here to be economically assets.”
A spokesman for Scotland’s Rural College said: ‘The research team was not trying to argue that depopulation was desirable.
“No matter what country we study, people are absolutely essential to social cohesion and vibrancy, new business creation, land management, etc. in rural and island communities.
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“We have simply highlighted prominent debates in Japan that incorporate questions about the realism of repopulation in all rural and island communities, particularly when Japan’s overall population is still declining – a different situation than of Scotland – and in the context of an ambitious network – zero targets.
“The Covid-19 pandemic potentially offers new opportunities for rural and island population growth in many countries, as people can increasingly work in hybrid ways – or using the Japanese term, parallel work – and may therefore move away from urban centres.
She added: “There is evidence from Japan that the infrastructure projects have been extremely successful, but have also brought a number of challenges, particularly in terms of landscape and environmental impact.
“It is true that there has been a shift in Japan towards more holistic and place-based approaches, and which recognize that it is essential to rely on local assets and resources, but the infrastructure remains a key aspect of many policies and initiatives in Japan, for example in terms of improving digital connectivity and transportation.
“Rural/island housing (supply and affordability) is one of the main differences we found between Japan and Scotland, and we recognize that this is such a big issue in rural communities and islanders of Scotland, as has been pointed out here.”