The Scottish Parliament's think-tank

Scotland 2030: A Sustainable Future for Rural Scotland

Photo of signposts pointing in different directions in Scottish Highands

Scotland’s sparsely-populated areas are predicted to lose a quarter of their population by 2046, with the working age population likely to shrink by 33%.

At the same time, the challenge of enabling the development that is needed to sustain rural communities is delicately balanced with the environmental imperatives of conserving our environment and protecting its biodiversity.

In this context, how can Scotland develop a shared vision for the future of its rural areas?

These questions and more were considered by an expert panel at a Futures Forum event on 14 May 2019, chaired by Claudia Beamish MSP. They discussed the challenges and trends, explored the potential futures ahead of us, and considered the outcomes we want to achieve by 2030.

Claudia Beamish MSP (Pic – Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

Highlights video


Listen to a highlights podcast of the event

Written report

Presenters and panel members

Dr Lesley Lancaster is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Aberdeen, and a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Young Academy of Scotland.

Dr Chris Dalglish is a director of Inherit, also known as the Institute for Heritage and Sustainable Human Development. He presented on Community Empowerment and Landscape—a research project conceived and funded jointly by Inherit and Community Land Scotland in response to concerns about rural depopulation and the potential for landscape policy to act as a barrier to rural renewal.

Megan MacInnes is one of six Scottish Land Commissioners. She has 20 years’ experience in land reform, community land rights and natural resource governance, and she works part-time with the international non-governmental organisation Global Witness.

Jack Norquoy MSYP has been a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament for Orkney since 2015, and is a very proud Orcadian.

Vicki Swales is head of land use policy at RSPB Scotland and appeared at this event as a representative of Scottish Environment LINK.

Dr Calum MacLeod is policy director for Community Land Scotland, which was formed in 2010 to represent community landowners throughout urban and rural Scotland.


Dr Lesley Lancaster, RSE Young Academy of Scotland

Lesley began by describing how differing concepts of sustainability highlight the challenges that lie ahead in developing a shared vision for the future of rural Scotland. Sustainability is a core component of the Young Academy’s work, and it defines it as the process of empowering communities and enabling access to expertise.

As Lesley noted, ecologists may use a different definition based on the long-term persistence, resilience or stability of a group of organisms and the functions they fulfil in an ecosystem.

As we move forward, a big challenge will be the development of a more holistic definition of sustainability that encompasses both natural and human dimensions.

Dr Lesley Lancaster (Pic – Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

Lesley went on to outline some broader issues with the concept of sustainability. For example, it will have to work with international and national goals and economic and technological activities in addition to the core goals for ecological and human wellbeing.

There are also practical challenges to overcome in engineering a sustainable future, and broader pragmatic issues around transparency and accessibility; inclusion and equality; and auditing and oversight.

Lesley emphasised that we need to develop precise objectives and identify specific mechanisms by which human dimensions and natural dimensions of sustainability can work synergistically to promote biodiversity, the preservation of natural heritage and human wellbeing.

Finally, Lesley shone a spotlight on Scotland’s global reputation for both its natural resources and its record of innovation and leadership. She argued that it is well-placed to become an international role model for building a sustainable society. She emphasised the importance of continuing to nurture our culture of sustainability, and the need to empower individuals—young people in particular—to develop next-generation concepts for a sustainable future as the concept evolves.

In conclusion, Lesley noted that we can promote engagement through daily small acts of stewardship that will develop into concepts and policies.


Dr Chris Dalglish, Inherit

Dr Chris Dalglish (Pic – Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

Last year, Inherit and Community Land Scotland produced the ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’ research report, which explored whether Scotland’s current landscape conservation policies act as a barrier to developments that would enable people to sustain and grow their rural communities.

View Chris’s presentation – Community Empowerment and Landscape

Chris highlighted the research project’s main findings in relation to three key questions:

  • What are the effects of policy in three areas—natural heritage, historic environment and landscape, defined as natural beauty and amenity—on people’s ability to develop their rural communities?
  • Can people take part in decisions about how their local landscapes are understood, conserved and developed?
  • What should be the future for participation in decisions on the conservation and development of our landscapes?

Chris noted that case studies of development show a very mixed picture. In some cases and for some people, conservation policy is perceived as a brake on community-led development in areas such as renewable energy or housing. In other cases, for other people, it is perceived positively as something that controls externally imposed development—such as wind farms and large quarries—that might be harmful and detrimental to local interests and the environment.

He highlighted a pervasive theme of the research: people feel excluded from decision-making around conservation, whether the final outcome is positive or negative, and locked out of decisions that affect their lives. That potentially has a harmful impact on the confidence, drive and resilience that are necessary to enable people to pursue the development of their communities and places.

Chris went on to discuss the way in which Scotland’s policy framework and the practice that goes with it has developed over the past few decades. He argued that there is a major tension between the growing inclusion of 21st-century principles in our conservation policy and a series of principles and practices that have been in place for decades or even generations and which reflect other ways of seeing and doing things. He outlined some competing aspects:

  • A holistic view of the local environment versus a silo-based approach
  • An openness to ways of seeing and valuing the same place versus a narrower set of values that are privileged and embedded in the system.
  • A drive to improve the quality of all places versus a tradition of protecting special places alone.
  • A drive to pursue conservation development through mutually beneficial objectives versus a drive to protect landscapes from development, which is always seen as a threat.
  • A sense that people have the right to participate in decisions versus an institutional culture in which landscape is seen as a matter for professionals.

He stressed the final tension—what he called the participation deficit—as the most significant in the report’s findings. There is a gap between the principle of participation, which is now well recognised in policy, and its delivery in practice through empowered participation.

Following those critiques, Chris moved on to look at policy and practice in the future, setting out a vision for conservation and development and the steps and practice that will get us there. He noted that we need a new definition of the public interest that marries conservation with the sustainable development of communities and the promotion of human rights. While sustainable development is a well-recognised principle, Chris reiterated that the concept can mean different things to different people. In its definition, the Inherit report makes three key points:

  • Sustainable development is about change, which should be an inherent part of what we do.
  • Sustainable development is about promoting and improving people’s wellbeing and quality of life in a way that supports rather than destroys the environment, and which is socially just.
  • People need to become agents of change by not only making decisions, but playing an active role in conceptualising and delivering sustainable development. Therefore, people need the opportunity to grow their abilities in that respect and to use them.

As Chris pointed out, the ingredients for that already exist in our policy and our legal frameworks, but those are interpreted, and certainly applied and implemented, in different ways. He emphasised that we should therefore focus our attention on implementation.

Before moving on to discuss practice, however, he first ran through the implications of current policy and legislative frameworks, starting with human rights. A human rights framework is useful because it helps us to define what we mean by sustainable development and what we seek to achieve. It is not explicit in our landscape policy framework, but it is implicit given the UK’s ratification of the European Landscape Convention, which relates to the broader Council of Europe mission to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

That can be combined with recent innovations in Scotland’s land reform legislation. The rights and responsibilities statement in the Land Reform Act 2016 was tied to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which relates to the conversation about rural areas and landscape. The covenant promotes the progressive fulfilment of rights to housing, water, food, work and cultural life, which fit well with sustainable development in relation to landscape and rural communities. Those elements provide the starting point to create a vision for the future.

As Chris said, a lot of the thinking is in place, but the vision can be articulated in different ways. How and where do we go with all that? He spoke about a model—or a constellation of models—as the way forward. Empowerment is a key element, but it should not simply involve offloading responsibilities on to communities. Chris highlighted some real-life examples from the Inherit report of how the model might work in practice. They are diverse but share some of the features and characteristics that might be referred to as place-based development.

  • A structural partnership or collaboration between conservation, community and other interests on the board of community landowner bodies in Eigg, Knoydart and North Harris.
  • Projects such as the North Harris eagle observatory, which has as its aims community development and conservation and is developed and delivered in partnership between a community organisation and other bodies.
  • Examples of ‘designations’ that combine community development and conservation. For example, national parks, UNESCO global geoparks and biosphere reserves tend to operate through collaboration and partnership.

As Chris stressed, the model tries to deliver both local and wider benefit, and it works through capacity building so that local people become agents of change, development and conservation. It is about conserving local assets for the future, but it also acts as a basis for development of the land, the landscape, the natural environment and the people of the place. It is networked, as success tends to come where local assets and local empowerment combine with external resources such as funding and external expertise to work together. As a final point to consider, Chris asked how we might go about making such practice the norm.


Using the tensions highlighted by Chris and Lesley as a jumping-off point, participants explored issues around participation and engagement in relation to people and communities. The debate also covered policy issues and addressed the need for diverse approaches to sustainability in rural areas, with land reform and conservation as overarching concerns. At the forefront was the question of how we join up policy while minimising contradictions and tensions and avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach.

Megan MacInnes (Pic – Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

Contested concepts

“If we’re talking about ideas of place-based development, what might that mean?”

A running theme was how terminology affects policy and engagement with people and communities. It was pointed out that rural Scotland is often discussed as one unique block, when in fact it is incredibly diverse. Participants agreed with Lesley and Chris that ‘sustainability’ is a contested term, and it was noted that the term ‘rural’ is often used to denote a homogenous concept in a way that may not be productive or useful and can be limiting for particular communities. In addition, it was suggested that the term “remote” is loaded in its connotations. Participants also drew out the tensions between theoretical concepts such as ‘empowerment’ and ‘place-based approach’ and what they might mean for communities in practice.

Making people’s voices heard

“If more people start to see that where policies and funding go are determined as a result of those conversations, maybe they would see it as in their interest to get involved.”

Picking up on a big theme from the Inherit report, it was argued strongly that empowering communities should mean involving people at all stages of the process. It was acknowledged that the issue of empowerment was tied to questions of land ownership in rural areas, and that a concentration of ownership meant greater control over decision making for landowners. Participants agreed that genuine engagement should mean more than just consultation.

In addition, engagement was highlighted as an extremely important way to navigate and try to resolve the tensions between conservation and development that Chris outlined. It was stressed that people who live and work in rural areas are at the heart of the drive to meet our net zero emissions targets to address climate change. As Chris said, we need to see communities as part of the solution rather than a challenge to conservation goals.

The need to broaden participation in the policy-making process was highlighted, and there were worries that stakeholders often simply talk among themselves. It was suggested that some reports may be too lengthy and complex for public consumption, and that new technology and tools might help people to engage. It was claimed that we are missing a trick to increase engagement through the land use strategy—despite pilot schemes in Aberdeenshire and the Borders—and that it might be better to put the strategy on a statutory footing.

Calum MacLeod (Pic – Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

Participants mentioned community councils as a forum for engagement, but lack of capacity and energy in communities was raised as an issue, and it was felt that tangible support was needed to enable participation. West Harris was cited as a successful example of community involvement, which has led to the creation of a thriving business and community hub. It was suggested that community councils may not always be very representative, and that we might look for inspiration to Norway, where such councils must include a certain proportion of residents under 30.

The next generation

“Young people must be at the heart of decision-making in their communities and all the topics that we are discussing.”

The role of young people in sustainable development was stressed as essential, and it was noted that Scotland is due to incorporate into law the provisions of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which include the right for young people to be involved and to express their opinions. It was emphasised that building astrong foundation of support for policy among the next generation will ensure that progress holds up.

Jack Norquoy MSYP (Pic – Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

The retention of young people in rural communities was picked up as a serious issue, and it was noted that many policies affecting rural areas often hit young people hard. Positive statistics from a Highlands and Islands Enterprise study of 5,000 young people—62 per cent participate in their community, and 55 per cent are committed to staying in the region—were balanced by their experience with affordable housing, transport and careers, with 76 per cent saying that there were not enough jobs in the Highlands and Islands.

Problems and policies

“We have a lot of policies, but we do not have very good joined-up policies. There is a real problem there, and there are inherent conflicts between policies which cut across each other.”

Depopulation was stressed as a headline issue affecting many rural areas such as the Bays of Harris. It was noted that recent research from the James Hutton Institute painted a gloomy picture of depopulation, and it was suggested that certain policies may inadvertently lead to decline. For example, it was argued that centralisation on the Orkney Mainland has led to fewer services in outlying areas, leading to depopulation. Issues with transport infrastructure and an uneven spread of affordable housing were also highlighted, and it was argued that the provision by some communities of their own transport services raised wider issues around the role of the state in the future development of rural areas. It was felt that more resources were required, but it was emphasised that the diversity of rural Scotland and the importance of local knowledge must be taken into account.

Vicki Swales (Pic – Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

It was acknowledged that a lack of affordable housing in rural areas is related not only to funding but to wider issues with the planning system. It was noted that the Land Commission is planning to look at the lack of available land for affordable housing and business development, and the need for land reform was emphasised as an overarching theme that affects all aspects of sustainable rural development.

It was argued that land reform should be at the centre of discussions going forward, and that land should be a mechanism for sustainable development. The lack of regulation in the land market was cited as a problem, and it was emphasised that land use needs to be more inclusive, productive and fair. There was some discussion of how land reform as public policy fits into the broader policy framework, and how we might marry up the economic, social, environmental and cultural aspects of sustainable development.

Developing a vision for the future

“We need to find techniques and tools, whether that involves statutory or cultural change, to rebalance the degree of power at local level in order for true engagement and empowerment to happen.”

In closing, participants focused on how we get to a better place for land and for our countryside by 2030. It was argued once more that we need to strengthen young people’s involvement in policy making at a local level, as part of a general rebalancing of power to let communities decide for themselves in areas that affect people’s everyday lives. The necessity ofa major overhaul of how public money is usedin rural areas was emphasised, and it was argued that we need to refocus and reshape investment. It was reiterated that, as well as moving on land reform, we need to address the big challenges of climate change and biodiversity, or we are in big trouble.

Nevertheless, the discussion ended on a positive note, with calls to celebrate innovation and develop a greater vision for successful areas such as food. Orkney was cited as a positive example for innovation in technology, given its status as a world centre for innovative technologies such as hydrogen power. Innovative approaches in areas such as transport and housing were suggested, with the ‘clachan’ model offered as a good example for rural settlements. It was asserted that Scotland is very good at innovation, which could pave the way for a shared vision that enables us to develop rural areas in a sustainable way while seriously addressing conservation concerns.