By NEIL RIDDELL
MORE people are leaving Shetland than any other area of the country, with the population slipping below 22,000 last year for the first time since the late 1970s, according to official statistics published this week.
A report by the Scottish Registrar General shows that the population slipped to 21,950 in 2007 despite births outnumbering deaths by 161.
There were 244 births and 83 deaths last year and, taken in isolation, those numbers would have led to a natural population growth of 1.7 per cent in the past decade, but in that same period more people have been migrating out of Shetland than anywhere else in Scotland.
Outward migration of 5.5 per cent has meant a net decrease in the population of 3.9 per cent since 1997, taking the isles’ population below the 22,000 mark for the first time since the advent of Sullom Voe.
It comes as the Scottish population shows an increase for the fifth year running, rising by 27,300 to 5,144,200, helped by sizeable increases in the central belt and Aberdeenshire in the past decade.
The registrar’s report is broadly in line with the findings of the SIC’s own population study, which described as “unrealistic” the council’s commitment to pursuing policies designed to increase the population to 25,000 by 2025.
SIC head of organisational development John Smith said it seemed there was little more that could be done in terms of improving the isles’ natural population, meaning that improving the balance of people leaving and moving to Shetland was now the priority for policy-makers.
Mr Smith said the explanation was fairly straightforward: along with young people leaving to undertake further education and, in many cases, not returning, people were also leaving for career development reasons later in life. “You can get a first job, maybe a second job, but as you try to move onwards and upwards, because of the nature of the restricted economy, there are perhaps not that many opportunities,” he said.
The picture in Shetland is in stark contrast to Orkney, where the population has risen by 0.5 per cent in the last 10 years, but Mr Smith said that may partly be down to the fact that Shetland’s population – which remains above Orkney’s – has been running at a higher level because of employment in the oil industry and salmon farming.
“I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally different [in the two economies] but if it looks like we’re moving in the opposite direction in a negative way, we need to try to understand that,” he said.
Mr Smith said he thought Shetland was doing a reasonable job of attracting and welcoming migrant workers but that the key would be holding onto folk in the long term, while also adapting to the change in age profile, both of which should act as a driver for any future policy changes.
He said: “There’s not a lot you can do directly in the public sector, it’s the development of careers in the private sector, whether it’s self-employed, with better prospects of being able to increase specialised skilled areas, or finding successful companies and trying to help them to grow, to create more opportunities – we have to look at all these angles. And trade on our best weather in Britain.”
The SIC’s population study will complete its round of the council’s various committees in the next few weeks, after which councillors may begin looking at what action, if any, to take.