London is set to be the biggest loser from any restrictive new migration policies

This lot are stuffed. Image: Getty.

The number of EU nationals working in the UK broke a new record last week: according to the Office of National Statistics, EU nationals now make up 7.4 per cent of the UK workforce. But behind the national figure, regional differences are striking.

If there was ever any doubt that London’s workforce has become increasingly ‘European’, the ONS should have dispelled it by now. Its 2016 figures on the nationality of workers show just how much freedom of movement with the European Union has changed the face of the capital: more than the rest of the country, and more than we previously thought.

London stands out from the rest of the country on many metrics, but the composition of its workforce is particularly out of step. At 15 per cent, the proportion of EU nationals in the city’s workforce is three times higher than elsewhere in the country, and about twice that of other major UK cities such as Manchester or Birmingham.

Across all industries the London workforce is more ‘European’, but for some –  in construction, public admin or real estate – the specificity of London is startling. Workers in construction are eight times more likely to be citizens of another EU country than elsewhere in the UK; workers in public admin or real estate five times more.  

Looking at workers’ nationality – rather than their country of birth, which has formed the basis for previous statistics – widens the gap in some industries. That’s particularly true in those with a high proportion of workers who are citizens from another EU country, but who were born outside the EU (Latin-American born Spanish citizens for instance).

Proportion of EU workers in selected industries. Source: ONS Annual Population Survey

This unique trait of London’s labour market stresses how strongly the shock of restricting freedom of movement would be felt in the capital. The flexibility and the lack of bureaucracy brought about by freedom of movement within the EU has removed many of the barriers foreign nationals face to studying and working in the UK.

While some EU regions have lost population, or have attracted a low-skilled workforce, London’s EU population has risen – from 500,000 in 2003 to around 1,200,000 in 2015. Around 80 per cent of this is middle- or high-skilled, according to the ONS’ April release. Freedom of movement is perhaps the aspect of EU membership that has affected London’s economy the most – yet the effects of restricting migration have rarely surfaced in the national discussion, and when they do, they are generally discussed as a positive rather than a negative aspect of Brexit.


Ministers have suggested that new visa rules could be more relaxed for high-skilled migrants in high-value added sectors, or for low-skilled migrants in crunch professions (‘barista visas’ was the version of this spun to The Sun). But while some sectors rely more heavily on their European workforce than others, the table above shows all industries in London would be affected in one way or another: struggling to fill vacancies, or facing the bureaucracy and costs of sponsoring visas.

Centre for London’s recent publication, Open city: London after Brexit, made the case for remaining in the Single Market to keep the city’s companies and services running. But if this is not possible, new immigration and trade policies need to reflect London’s needs as well as the rest of the country’s preferences – with a more flexible regime for the city that is the engine of the UK economy and a magnet for talented young people from across the world.

Nicolas Bosetti is a research intern at the Centre for London. He tweets as @nicolasbosetti.

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How the big freeze of 1962-3 killed off Britain’s canals

Little Venice, London. This was actually 2010, but you get the idea. Image: Getty.

The English are internationally renowned for banging on about the weather. When British drizzle is compared to the hurricanes of the Caribbean or the cold faced by more landlocked countries, our complaining seems wholly unjustified.

Still, our weather can have ruinous effects on whole industries. The particularly cold winter of 1962-63 was the final nail in the coffin of a centuries old water-borne trade.

At one time canals played an essential role in the UK’s economy. In the early days of the industrial revolution, canals snaked across the map, connecting the coal mines of the countryside to the factories of cities. They fuelled the furnaces and kept the hearth fires burning, allowing for cities to rapidly grow in the closing years of the 18th century.

A map of British and Irish waterways. The canal network is in orange. Image: Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

Economics is rarely sentimental, though, and when more effective modes of travel came along the canals began their slow demise. Whereas European canals widened to accommodate for ever larger boats, the thin British canals –bar the mighty Manchester ship canal – slowly gave in to the supremacy of those new-fangled trains.

The rise of railway also saw the odd canal being bought and shut down by railway companies. In most cases this was simply about eliminating the competition, but in some the straight canals proved a perfect place for new railway tracks – the fate of South London’s Croydon Canal.

Still, the bargepeoples tightened their belts, and the canal system limped on as a viable option for freight until the early ‘60s, when nature came in with the knockout blow. The Big Freeze of 1962-3 was, as the name suggests, uniquely cold for the UK. Records going back as far as 1659 only recorded two winters colder, and the canal system froze solid.

Somerset, January 1963. The snow stayed for so long it stretched phone wires out of shape. Image: Howard Dublin/Wikimedia Commons.

Facing months of no service by barges, industries that had been reliant on the canals switched to alternatives on the rail and road networks. When the ice finally thawed, and with grim memories of that winter on mind, few returned to using the canals for freight. Besides having dire consequences for that years football calendar, the winter mostly finished canals as a component of British industry.

Luckily many of the canals themselves survived to be repurposed, first for leisure and more recently for living. London’s canal system currently holds around 5000 boats, 60 per cent of them permanent homes. These liveaboards, driven there by the desire for the slow life or the rest of the city’s crippling property prices, are changing the face of London’s waterways.
The water dwellers, along with those drawn to these lateral parks for leisure, have brought business back to the city’s canals. Now books shops, grocers, coffee shops and even bakeries can be found floating on the waters.

So next time the trope of the weather obsessed Brit comes up, you can scoff at other countries hailstones the size of Chihuahuas, or sun you can cook an egg in. Tell them that the weather has shaped British history, too – and with huge climatic shifts on the horizon, it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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