SPAIN, Croatia and Greece are looking at plans to copy Scotland's half-century long effort to reverse the historic depopulation of the Highlands and Islands.

A major European-Union-funded report has recommended setting an independent bodies - immune to short-term party politics - to pursue long-term development in five southern European regions shedding people.

Such agencies would be explicitly modelled on the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) and its successor organisation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

Earlier this month Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was reported to have taken an interest in such a scheme for the central regions of his country of Teruel, Cuenca and Soria.

BACKGROUND: The Scottish Highland solution to southern Europe’s depopulation

All three local authorities are part of a group called Southern Sparsely Populated Areas network or SSPA which also includes one of Croatia's biggest and poorest counties, Lika-Senj, and Greece's mountainous Evrytania region.

The SSPA, with backing of the EU and national and local governments, is investigating ways of developing HIEs for these areas.

Speaking this week, a spokesman for Teruel Existe, the body seeking to push for such a scheme in that area, said HIE was "a model of success."

The SSPA stressed that it wanted "autonomous" bodies like HIDB/HIE and also underlined how the University of the Highlands and Islands had given people the chance to study closer to home - as well as cementing technical and academic expertise in at-risk communities.

But it it the sheer recovery of the population of Scotland's once peripheral region that has impressed SSPA officials.

Exact and comparable figures are hard to find. But it now looks like the Highlands and Islands have recovered the population they lost after the Clearances.

The region had around 470,000 in the 1850s. That had fallen to around 350,000 in 1961. Four years later Harold Wilson had set up the HIDB to stem the decline.

By 2011 the regional population was 447,000 and the mid-year estimate for 2017 was 469,524. 

Zoe Laird, regional head of communities infrastructure at the HIE, welcomed moves to emulate that success but was far from complacent.

She said: “When our predecessor, HIDB, was established in 1965, it had a unique remit of community, as well as economic development.

"This has continued with HIE to this day and is now also being replicated by the new South of Scotland Enterprise agency.

"The approach has certainly had its successes, as we can see from regional population growth over the past 50 years. We very much welcome interest from other countries facing similar challenges with population.

"We are very keen to share our experiences, while recognising there is still some way to go, as some rural areas are still experiencing population declines.”

HeraldScotland: Cuenca

SSPA officials visited Scotland and Ms Laird officials has been to Spain. The Highlands in the last 50 years have grown even faster than Scotland on average.

However, Scottish policy-makers and politicians are desperately concerned about pockets of the Highlands and Islands - and elsewhere - where the population is still falling. And they fear Brexit - with the threat to immigration it poses - could make things worse.

HERALD VIEW:  The Highlands are in need of further successes

Ian Blackford leads the SNP at Westminster where he represents Ross, Skye and Lochaber. He said: "There is still an awful lot to do in the Highlands and Islands and there is much to be frustrated about.

"There is still a job to be done, not just to reverse depopulation but the ageing of the population as well.

"Where I live in Waternish, on Skye, 35% of people over 65.

"And there are still areas were there are enormous challenges and where there is still depopulation going on, such as the Western Isles and parts of Argyll.

"But there is no question that HIDB and HIE have been a focus for change for good. I look at how they support businesses in my constituency, the way the smelter was saved in Lochaber "We are trying to make sure there is an industrial future for the Highlands, that there is infrastructure for it as a destination, that there is connectivity in all its forms.

"If you make the contrast, it is much easier for young people to stay and develop a career and have families.

"If the HIDB and HIE had not existed, then we would not have been able to move the needle the way we have done successfully."

HeraldScotland: Ian Blackford took Charles Kennedy's old seat

Mr Blackford in his constituency

The Scottish Government was also cautious about those hailing HIDB/HIE as a complete success.

As spokesman said:“We welcome the fact that other countries are following Scotland’s lead in seeing the retention and encouragement of people in our more remote and rural communities as a priority.

"We are clear that we don’t have all the answers to the issue of rural depopulation, and that we can and must continue to learn from other countries experiencing similar issues.

“So while we are heading in the right direction with increased support for rural businesses, communities and our commitment to providing better physical and digital connectivity, we are under no illusions that there is more needing to be done.

"That is why we have established a ministerial population taskforce with the specific aim of bringing the Scottish Government together to focus on the challenges of depopulation and the specific aim of securing sustainable, vibrant and resilient communities.”

Brian Wilson, former Labour minister and veteran of Highland campaigns from the days when HIDB was created, said he felt the new HIE lacked the independence of its predecessor.

READ MORE: Brian Wilson on the unfinished business of HIDB 

Mr Wilson said: "Unlike most economic development agencies, including HIE as it has now evolved, HIDB was expected to take risks and had the backing of government to do so. "It always had chairmen of substance – Robert Grieve, Andrew Gilchrist, Ken Alexander, Bob Cowan - who became advocates for the region and the Board.

"They were confident enough in their own right to stand up to government when necessary. "That was essential but it certainly does not happen now, with increasingly centralised control over everything that moves in Scotland – the antithesis of devolution. "The budget of HIE has also been cut very substantially over the past decade with correspondingly less impact."

Mr Wilson suggested there was some unfinished business, including land reform, of which he is a long-standing supporter.