I recently put my name forward for selection to run for the Greens on the South of Scotland list. It’s something I’ve considered for a while but actually putting my hat in the ring has made me consider where I come from, why I left and what desperately needs to change to encourage other young people to stay or return to their rural roots.
I grew up near Biggar in rural South Lanarkshire. It’s a part of the world I will always adore and it will always be home for me. But when I left at 16 to pursue an art career in Edinburgh, I don’t think I ever once felt that staying there was an option.
Had I stayed and tried to go to Edinburgh College of Art whilst living at home, I’d have had to face a 2 hour bus journey each way from Broughton, despite it only being 30 miles away, because the bus routes never connected. I’d have had to travel 12 miles by another bus to get to my nearest library to study and I would have battled against impossibly low internet speeds.
Of course, leaving home wasn’t just about leaving the countryside – I wanted to branch out on my own, live with friends rather than family, and make a life for myself. But none of my close friends ever thought that we might live anywhere other than the city. How would we have studied? Where would we have worked? What future would we have had?
In recent years, as I found myself on a rather different career path than the one I embarked upon, I’ve occasionally pondered the merits of moving home. But things like the slow internet at my Mum’s, the sporadic public transport and the lack of flexibility in my job to work from home, always made me have second thoughts.
Now with thoughts of settling down, of raising a family my homing signal grows ever stronger, to the point where I’m pretty confident that now I could do it and overcome (or at least adapt to accommodate) many of those structural barriers. But of course with thoughts of family comes worries about childcare. As an audience member at the Scottish Green Party Spring conference said this weekend, where she is, there is simply no affordable childcare available. Half her salary went on paying a local friend and childminder to look after her children while she worked full time for take home pay that equated to less than £3 per hour.
As it turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, I’m far from being the only young person in the South to have felt that there was no future, no opportunity for me at home. Looking at the statistics for the demographics across the region, there’s one very obvious and stark difference with the statistics for the whole country – the young people are missing.
Not only are there fewer young children as a proportion of the population in the South compared with the whole country, but the gulf between the national picture and the South is much more stark when people reach their twenties. The stats show that the number of young people in the region declines as age increases from the teens to the mid-late 30s, whilst the national picture shows a marked increase in the number of young people from the ages of about 12-21. So what can we conclude from that? Young people leave the south and head for other parts of the country on an enormous scale.
I look at this numbers and I see problems for the sustainability of the region without young labour to provide new workers as older ones retire or young families to keep small rural schools open.
So – what do we do about any of this? For me it’s clear – we must create opportunities for young people in the South and ensure that, for future generations, those barriers of poor public transport, lack of connectivity and inaccessible, unaffordable childcare are overcome. Job creation, opportunities to study outside of the cities and sustained investment in connections like transport, broadband and mobile signals to the rest of the country are vital if we are to ensure that youth and opportunity go hand in hand in the rural south.