THE BLOG

Britain Needs Smarter, Not Harsher, Immigration Policies

03/11/2015 10:24 GMT | Updated 02/11/2016 09:12 GMT

The recent ONS report on national population projections estimates that the UK population will increase by 9.7 million over the next 25 years, reaching 73.4 million people in mid-2039. Half of this increase will be due to international migration, which, in the last decade, has already accounted for 56 per cent of the total population change in the UK.

Migration restrictionists will no doubt use these statistics as proof of the need for harsher immigration controls, and press the government to stick to the net migration target. Yet one of the lessons of the past five years is that government policy is relatively powerless in this area. The UK currently has one of the strictest migration policies in the EU. Our rules on family reunification, international study and citizenship are amongst the most demanding in the developed world. Yet we are still experiencing record net migration.

Demographic projections suggest that every local authority area will experience higher levels of migration in the future. The number of 'plural' local authorities (where no ethnic group dominates in terms of numbers) has already tripled from 2001 to 2011, with Slough, Luton and Leicester being the first local authorities outside of London that are no longer majority white British. Forty-five more local authorities are predicted to follow suit by 2031.

Britain has one of the most flexible labour markets in the world and some of the strongest employment outcomes for migrants. The foreign-born population already resident in Britain encourages further migration of family members, friends and co-nationals, known as 'network effects'. And the fact that English is the language, the third most widely-spoken, also attracts greater numbers of migrants to the UK.

A better approach would therefore be to reflect on how we can better prepare our country to respond to these shifts in its population. More could be gained from understanding how local authorities, particularly those likely to experience an increase in migration for the first time, can be better prepared to respond to inevitable demographic change.

The forthcoming IPPR report, Trajectory and transience: understanding and addressing the pressures of migration on communities, proposes a series of measures to alleviate local pressures caused by migration. We argue for the introduction of a more responsive system of managing data collection, such as a nationally coordinated, locally delivered registration scheme for all residents, along the lines of the German model, which would enable local authorities to track migration trends and pre-empt challenges, as well as prepare local services.

The report finds that it is not so much the number of migrants in a particular local authority that creates pressures on public services and challenges community cohesion, but trajectory and transience - whether or not an area has a history of migration, and whether migrants come to settle or move on - which have the greatest impact on how well migration is managed at the local level. Areas with little experience of migration and high levels of transience are most susceptible to social tensions and pressures on services, and are in need of most assistance.

Local authorities should ensure that they make the most of their increasingly diverse communities. Local economies could be boosted by linking newly-arrived migrants with specific skills to areas with labour shortages. Also, retaining international students could boost local economies through foreign investment and filling graduate skills gaps in the local labour market, which would in turn limit the negative effects of population churn. Recent studies also highlight other benefits of migration for local communities: migrants tend to be young and healthy, and their presence in a local authority can in fact reduce pressures on health services, for example by decreasing NHS waiting times. More diverse areas also show higher levels of pupil attainment in schools.

High net migration is a reality and - whether we like it or not - this trend will continue in the coming decades. If national and local government accept and prepare for this fact - rather than live in a state of denial - there is much they can do to address local imbalances, pre-empt and alleviate pressures on services, and help ease public concerns.

Dr Julia Halej is Research Assistant at Coventry University. She specialises in migration, diversity and ethnicity, and worked on the Trajectory and Transience project with IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research)