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Population timebomb fears rise after ‘extremely worrying’ school roll projections by Highland Council, say business leaders

By Philip Murray

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School classroom, stock picture.
School classroom, stock picture.

“Extremely worrying” population changes in the Highlands are risking an “irreversible” demographic timebomb, experts and leading business figures fear.

Their stark warnings come after Highland Council published forecasts for expected pupil numbers in 15 years’ time - which are predicting a significant fall in the region’s school age population.

Using the most recent 2023/24 financial year as the base year, and the latest government population publications for guidance, the council is now forecasting an overall 23 per cent fall in pupil numbers across its 29 secondary schools in the 15 years to 2038/39.

The decline is not just confined to rural communities either, with the five Inverness secondaries forecast to lose 20 per cent of their pupils - only five per cent better than the 25 per cent fall predicted for the rest of the Highlands.

Worried experts and industry figures said the fall stands in sharp contrast to the decline of ‘only’ seven per cent that was being forecast just a year ago, reflecting the change in methodology brought about by the use of the government population publications.

Professor David Bell, of the Stirling Management School at the University of Stirling - and who is an expert in demographic decline and the Scottish economy - said: “The forecast decline in pupil numbers is extremely worrying.

“Without substantial in-migration of working age families, the process is cumulative, with each generation smaller than the last – leading to irrevocable social, economic and cultural decline.”

The Federation of Small Businesses’ Highlands & Islands Development Manager, David Richardson, said the sharp fall in projected pupil numbers is a ‘very frightening prospect indeed’, and that the impact on already growing staffing shortages could be significant.

He said: “For Highland schools as a whole to lose around a quarter of their pupils in 15 years is very frightening prospect indeed.

“The visitor economy dominates much of our region and it has experienced an ever-worsening staffing shortage for years, FSB surveys finding that while a third of all business on Skye were short-staffed in 2016, the situation had deteriorated to six in ten in the Highlands in 2022.

“The result? Many short-staffed businesses have been forced to cut opening hours, the range of services they offer, or both to survive, and this can inevitably impact on customers’ perceptions of value for money and of the Highlands as a place to visit and do business.

David Richardson.
David Richardson.

“We now have the advent of the Green Freeport, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Highlands, one predicted to create employment for 10,000 plus people in the next 10 to 15 years.

“With new jobs being created and school rolls forecast to decline so starkly, where will the workers come from to fill the many new posts, let-alone old?”

Prof Bell, Mr Richardson and others believe action is needed now.

“A return to the levels of working-age in-migration that the Highlands experienced in the early 2000s is unlikely in the present political climate: other solutions have to be found,” Prof Bell said.

He acknowledged that the issue is not limited to the Highlands, and that factors like an ageing population are Scotland and UK-wide issues.

He explained: “Here the realisation that the Highlands is not alone in facing this challenge can aid policy development.

“The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is collecting information on responses to rural depopulation, which is now affecting many countries.

“It set up the project ‘Shrinking Smartly and Sustainably’ in February 2023 to look at how depopulation leads to a mismatch between infrastructure, service provision and the built environment. This project can provide valuable lessons for our policymakers.

“However, the scope for public sector solutions to population decline will be limited for the foreseeable future due to the Highland Council’s financial constraints.

“Increasing emphasis on community-based and private sector solutions, with Highland Council’s role limited mainly to that of a facilitator, is inevitable.”

Mr Richardson added: “Lots of questions, but at the end of the day the Highlands needs more people of working age to fill the vacancies and create the economically and socially vibrant and sustainable communities that we need.”

“For this to happen we must provide appropriate and affordable accommodation, decent medical and educational services, decent retail, hospitality and recreational facilities, decent transport and digital connectivity, and last but not least, decent career prospects.

The Port of Nigg, which is part of the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport (ICFGF).
The Port of Nigg, which is part of the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport (ICFGF).

“Clearly, this all costs eye-wateringly large amounts of money, not least the affordable house building. But if we don’t invest, are we prepared to sit back and watch many of our rural villages continue what is currently the slow transition into glorified retirement communities?”

Speaking out for communities, Genevieve Duhigg, chair of the North Highland Initiative, said. “Our communities have already proved their resilience and innovation in the last few years.

“They deserve to be listened to closely as they know what’s needed most to build their futures. We all need to build a shared and integrated Highland-wide plan for housing, transport, skills and childcare.”

A Highland Council spokesperson said, “It should be remembered that these are simply forecasts based on current build programmes.

”They do not reflect the impacts of measures to support major economic developments, for which housing and infrastructure are being proactively considered. The forecasts are reviewed annually, and they will respond to and plan for such measures.”

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