Immigration: national gain should not mean local pain

The economic and fiscal benefits of migration have not always been felt locally


Top of today’s news is a report on the size of migrant populations in the UK, produced by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. Except it is not really national news at all – the data is entirely what might is expected from Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis of who is coming and who is leaving the UK.

The Migration Observatory figures measure the number of migrants – overseas-born – people living in England, a number that demographers term ‘migrant stock’. The Census and the quarterly Labour Force Survey are used to make this calculation. This shows that between 2011 and 2014 and extra 565,000 migrants were added to the population of England.

The ONS figures which were published last week measure migrant flow – how many migrants are arriving and leaving, dan use the International Passenger Survey to make this calculation. When emigration numbers are subtracted from immigration we have ‘net migration’ – the statistic that has come to symbolise the success or failure of migration policy. Net migration in the year to June 2012 was 167,000. It was 182,000 in the year to June 2013 and 260,000 in the year to June 2014.

Both sets of figures show that migration from eastern and central Europe has again increased after a lull between 2008 and 2011. Labour has blamed recruitment agencies and unscrupulous employers for these trends. But a conversation with a new migrant shows why migration is growing. The UK economy is growing and the sterling is particularly strong at the moment. One pound will buy you 5.7 Polish zloty today. Back in 2008 there were only 4 Polish zloty to £1, so money earned in the UK was worth less when sent home.

Migration from eastern Europe is quite closely correlated with exchange rates. In 2008 sterling crashed against the zloty and other eastern European currencies. In the 12 months to December 2008 net migration from the 2004 accession countries was just 20,000 people. In comparison, in the year to September 2014 net migration from these countries came to 78,000.

Three of the 2004 accession countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are now members of the Eurozone. Estonia has used the Euro the longest: since 2011. It is significant to note that there has been little migration from this country to western Europe. My prediction is that Eurozone membership has the potential to reduce migration from Latvia and Lithuania migration.

But however future migration flows pan out, there is no denying that some areas are experiencing significant population growth caused by international migration. Today’s Migration Observatory figures are broken down by local authority district. What is striking is the uneven distribution of international migrants across the UK. Despite recent increases, the numbers of migrants in many northern local authorities is still small – less than three per cent of the overall population in most local authorities in the North East.

Some 55 per cent of England’s 7.9 million overseas-born people residing in London and the South East. Some of today’s media comment has argued that rapid population growth places a strain on local public services in these areas.

While almost all new migrants are working and pay taxes, including council tax, it is important to note that local authorities have seen unprecedented cuts to their budgets. The economic and fiscal benefits of migration have not always been felt locally. Moreover, councils now receive a three-year financial settlement from central government. While a three-year budgetary cycle provides funding stability for local authorities, it cannot cope with rapid population change.

The youthful demographic profile of migrant population raises some specific issues for future local public service planning, for example, maternity services, school place management and the regulation of private-rental accommodation. International migration means that over the next ten years more school places will be needed in many parts of London and the South East. In such circumstances it is essential that local public services are funded sufficiently to cope with population change.

Over the last 15 years migrants have brought substantial national benefits through increased tax revenues, skills and entrepreneurship. But these national benefits have not always trickled down locally. It is time to reverse this situation of ‘national gain and local pain’ by providing local authorities with the means to manage population growth and promote integration. This should be a priority of the next government, not the flawed net migration target.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and writes on migration and family policy

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