Rural Exchange

Rural and Island Policy Evolution

As part of our research for ReRIC we undertook a review of the evolution of rural and island policy in Scotland since the Second World War. Based on this review, it provides some suggestions for how policies may evolve in the future.

The two areas of policy (rural and islands) are contrasting.

Rural policy has a long history and evolution. The focus of ‘rural’ policy in Scotland (as in the rest of the UK) was on the agriculture sector and agricultural recovery after the Second World War. During the 1990s and 2000s several rural documents were issued mainly setting out high level guiding principles, with little impact on the ground. Since 2010-11 and the introduction of the National Performance Framework, rural issues have been mainstreamed by Scottish Government.

While there have been no new rural documents, there have been specific interventions for rural areas including the setting up of Scottish Rural Action and the biennial Rural Parliament events. In April 2023, Scotland’s First Minister committed to introduce a Rural Delivery Plan and a Remote, Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan by 2026.

Up until Brexit, EU policy making had a strong influence over Scotland’s rural areas including financially through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Regional and Structural Funds. While Scotland still lacks a dedicated rural vision and strategy, its rural (and island) communities have been impacted by legislative and policy changes in other domains, including land reform, community empowerment and planning, and by policy and funding decisions made in Westminster.

The situation for Scotland’s islands is somewhat different. In contrast to the policy of mainstreaming for its rural communities, Scotland has dedicated legislation and a clear plan for its islands.

At least in part as a result of the islands organising themselves to have a strong voice during the campaign for independence in 2015-16. The Scottish Government passed the Islands (Scotland) Act in 2018. This resulted in the first National Islands Plan being published in 2019 with an annual progress report and five-yearly review, and a legislative commitment to undertake Islands Community Impact Assessments (ICIAs) to assess policies and legislation for their potentially different impacts on island communities.

There have also been further island-specific commitments, including for a Young Islanders Network and for funding for island communities.

What do we recommend?

While the political and socio-economic climates have changed significantly, and rural and island communities are now experiencing new challenges and opportunities, there is still much that can be learned from previous rural interventions. This history should not be lost. As Scotland introduces its rural lens approach and expands this across all policy domains, learning from elsewhere – other countries and other domains, particularly island proofing – will be critical to ensure the process is meaningful and not burdensome. 


Author: Jane Atterton, Ana Vuin and Steven Thomson

Funded by the Scottish Government Strategic Research Programme 2022-2027. SRUC-E2-2: Reimagined Policy Futures: Shaping Sustainable, Inclusive and Just Rural and Island Communities in Scotland (ReRIC)

You can read the report using the download link below or you can find the report using the DOI: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.24125463

You can also view this interactive presentation


Further Reading

More within the Rural and Island Policy Evolution project

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ReRIC Rural Housing Challenges

Housing supply and affordability in rural and island Scotland: ReRIC persistent challenge 1

In the ReRIC project, we are aiming to generate new understandings of three persistent challenges that have...[more]

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ReRIC Rural Demographic Changes

Demographic change in rural and island Scotland: ReRIC persistent challenge 2

In the ReRIC project, we are aiming to generate new understandings of three persistent challenges that have...[more]

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ReRIC Social Exclusion Challenges

Social exclusion and marginalisation in rural and island Scotland: ReRIC persistent challenge 3

In the ReRIC project, we are aiming to generate new understandings of three persistent challenges...[more]

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Rural and Island Policy Evolution

As part of our research for ReRIC we undertook a review of the evolution of rural and island policy in Scotland since the Second World War. Based on this review...[more]


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