The Scottish Government has been told to "get its finger out" over a four month delay to a report aimed at tackling depopulation across Scotland.

Last year's Programme for Government saw the SNP pledge to respond to the challenge of dwindling population figures in rural and island areas with a dedicated action plan.

However, the report - an Addressing Depopulation Action Plan - was due to be published in autumn 2023 and is now four months late.

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Rhoda Grant, Labour's Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands, called the delay "deeply disappointing".

The Highlands and Islands Regional MSP added: "This task force was all but shelved due to Covid but yet we see our rural communities continue to decline.

"That said, we don’t need a task force to tell us what needs to happen. We need to provide equality of service provision in rural areas, too often services are removed and centralised.

"This impacts on service users but also take these jobs out of rural communities. Each of these jobs also means a family leaving.

"This decline sucks confidence from communities and people move away. To help them to stay they need homes, jobs and services.

"It is not complicated but sadly the government seems intent on doing the opposite."

The plan was billed by the government as considering how it would "respond to the range of drivers impacting population decline including, but not limited to, access to public services, housing, transport and connectivity."

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said there can be no "quick fixes" to the challenges facing island communities but called certain previous proposals "ridiculous".

The Orkney MSP was referring to a controversial proposal to offer a £50,000 "welcome grant" to encourage young people and families to move to Scottish islands.

After consultation with islanders, the plans were scrapped.

Mr McArthur said: "People in Orkney know that the only way to reverse depopulation in rural and island communities is through long-term investment in infrastructure.

"This means sustained support for housing, transport links and digital infrastructure, which are crucial in providing economic opportunities, building community resilience and providing the means to attract and retain people in our islands.

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"By contrast, SNP ministers appear convinced there are quick fixes to these challenges, most notably with their ridiculous proposal to pay people £50,000 to move to an island.

"If the much-delayed Depopulation Action Plan is to have any credibility, it must avoid more pointless gimmicks and demonstrate a new-found commitment from Ministers to focus on a small number of key priorities that can make a real difference in meeting the needs of our rural and island communities."

However, Equalities Minister Emma Roddick agreed there are no "quick fixes" for the challenges around depopulation and said the government was committed to delivering the action plan "shortly".

However, Scottish Conservatives shadow secretary for rural affairs and the islands, Rachael Hamilton MSP, said the delay was unacceptable.

Ms Hamilton said: “Nothing better illustrates the SNP/Greens’ contempt for rural Scotland than a vital report into the depopulation crisis, which their policies have exacerbated, being four months late.

"It’s little wonder there’s an exodus from our rural and island communities when the Nationalist coalition can’t provide decent broadband, a reliable ferry service or upgrade key trunk roads, let alone recruit enough teachers or GPs to serve local communities.

"People living in rural Scotland feel misunderstood and ignored by the urban-focused SNP-Greens.

"The SNP need to get their finger out and publish this report, and then – crucially – take the action required to safeguard communities in the Highlands and beyond."

The Herald's recent series - The New Highland Clearances - considered the issue of depopulation in the Highlands with figures showing that population growth between 2011 and 2022 was 1.4% - less than half that of Scotland overall, while the Western Isles is expected to experience a 6% decline by 2028.

Secondary school roll forecasts which are predicting a 12.5% decline over the next 15 years without Inverness.

The Scottish Government was criticised for not understanding and reacting meaningfully enough to the challenges faced by rural and island populations.

However, Ms Roddick said: "There is no quick fix for the challenges leading to depopulation.

"The Scottish Government is committed to delivering, through its Addressing Depopulation Action Plan, a range of actions which are pragmatic, targeted, and affordable, and respond to what we have heard from communities and stakeholders during policy engagement and development.

"The Addressing Depopulation Action Plan will be published shortly, and will ensure that within a challenging budget environment we can maximise the impact our interventions can have in supporting the sustainability of communities affected by population decline."