Why we would all benefit from a stronger regional focus for migration policies

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Don Flynn(mrn)

What role does migration play in getting UK plc back into growth? Maybe this is the wrong question to ask. Maybe the more important issue is knowing how we get our regional economies back on course for producing decent jobs and public services, and the part migrants will play in achieving this.

A busy time last week took me to separate meetings in Glasgow and Manchester to discuss essentially the same topic – how do we assess the impact of migration in these parts of the UK? Also, does migration play any role in plans being formulated at the Scottish and English regional levels which would help their economies and communities find their ways out of the mire of low growth and increasing unemployment?

These are important questions for the future of the migration policy debate. There is an entrenched presumption across the political spectrum that the stuff that happens as consequences of migrants arriving in the cities and towns of the UK nations and the English regions is all bad and this is reflected in the negative sentiments which politicians tell us comes back to them as they patrol the doorsteps of the electorate.

Postive local attitudes
Yet the experiences people have of migration at the level of local communities, rather than ramping up the sense of grievance most people are supposed to have, actually seems to act as a dampener on its worst excesses. Research published by the Migration Observatory suggests that negatives views on migration are less in areas of high migrant settlement. The one exception to this trend is Scotland – over a long period of time a low immigration country where the population is more inclined to the view that a higher level of new people coming to live and work there would be a good thing.

There were three events I attended during my days in Scotland: a training session for GMB organisers involved in union recruitment campaigns; a conference of GRAM Net held at Glasgow University, and a roundtable discussion organised by Migrants Rights Scotland. Each of them was attended by people, ranging from trade union and community activists, university-based researchers, as well as Members of the Scottish Parliament representing three of the five parties who sit in that assembly.

Across all these discussions the view was constantly reiterated that everyone knew, almost at the intuitive level, that migration would play a part in the economic and social renaissance that Scotland is pursuing for itself at the present time. But the pressing need, as was said on many occasions, was to know a lot more about how this would work out as a concrete business plan for economic recovery and social renewal. In what sectors of the economy would migrants be seeking to make their future, what would this entail for jobs creation and wage growth, what investment in the infrastructure of housing, transport, education and healthcare would be needed to make all this work?

The same sort of questions were asked at the meeting organised by the leading equalities organisation for the north west region – One North West – which has invited the APPG Migration to its home base in Manchester last Friday to consider what migration meant for that part of England which stretched from the Wirral peninsular to the borders of Scotland. The towns and cities of this region which has always contained a high proportion of the UK’s industrial and manufacturing capacity earn their living through businesses which are likely to employ in the region to one to 500 employees, which makes them a part of the small and medium enterprise sector.

Small business sector
Research conducted into SME needs with respect to migration suggest that this runs at a higher rate than is normally considered to be the case. According to the report Migration reform: caps don’t fit published in December 2011, one quarter of the smallest firms (1 – 19 employees) had recruited a non-EU staff member in the previous five years. Amongst firms in the medium-size bracket (20-199 employees), this proportion rises to 54%, and then to 60% for the 199-500 employee group.

Knowing more about the proportion of businesses who fall within these brackets in different parts of the UK would provide us with a pretty good steer in the way of judging the importance of local streams of migration and the effect it is likely to have on growth and a return to prosperity.

Yet, despite a political agenda which emphasises ‘localism’, the UK government has been reluctant to consider any line of argument that immigration policies should be sensitive to the conditions and needs which prevail in the UK nations and English regions which segment populations into communities which are in the order of a few millions. The chief informant of UK-wide immigration policies are the conditions which prevail in London and South East England, which its high population, urban density, and strong orientation to the global economy in services as the main theme in the way it makes its living.

As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, policies informed by just one regional model of the way the economy operates stands a good chance of imposing unhelpful conditions on other parts of the country. How do we get some balance into the public conversation about policies which will allow us to consider at least the possibility that Scotland, or North West England, or the West Midlands or Northern Ireland, might benefit from different, more nuanced approaches?

Against regionalism
Unfortunately the Migration Advisory Committee has itself been unsympathetic to arguments that there should more sensitivity to regional needs from migration. Drawing on evidence that mainly comes from wages levels, it responds to this suggestion with the comment that the data shows the existence of only two economic regions in the UK – London and the South East, and everywhere else.

As an exercise in the management of macro-economic date this might well appear to be the case. But it is a viewpoint that ignores the real-time vitality of economic life. This, of necessity encompasses the business plans of thousands of enterprises, from high street restaurants to companies vying for a place in the international market place, and going on through the activities of regional universities and the great public services, which also see the value in including migration as a factor which would help them organise their own work.

Our Scottish and North West colleagues are promising active programmes of work to see if they can establish the principles that would make sense of these factors and themes, which are all a part of getting growth up and running again. Their success in doing this, and its reproduction across all the other parts of the UK, is likely to be an important part of the migration policy debate in the years to come.

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