Could the Sanctuary City Movement take off in the UK?

Rockville, Maryland debates becoming a sanctuary city in March 2017. Image: Getty.

Nowhere could an anti-immigration campaign seem to so utterly lack logic than in America. After all, the country’s white population are immigrants themselves, building a society through plunder and murder against the native American population. Since then, wave upon wave of migration has shaped American society. Indeed, the American dream has migration at its core. So what does it mean when a sizeable proportion of the American public rejects its fundamental national identity?

Meanwhile, the long history of migration to the UK is a footnote, or told in sketches by radical comedians. The recent wave of anti-immigration sentiment has been opportunistically exploited by politicians; culminating, as we all know, in the inflammatory rhetoric of the Leave.EU campaign.

The sanctuary cities movement aims to challenge the onslaught against immigrants and refugees, on both sides of the Atlantic. But how far can this movement resist a right-wing myopia that current beguiles the media and population alike?

The Sanctuary movement

In its modern form, the sanctuary cities movement originated in the States in the 1980s as a way of providing safe spaces for undocumented immigrants. But some, like Barbara Krauthamer, rightly point out that it has its roots in the US’ long and rich history of resistance to slave supporting states and federal laws by African American communities.

Following Donald Trump’s plan to deport undocumented immigrants, the Sanctuary City movement has come into its own. Four states, 39 cities and 364 counties in the US have signed a pledge to protect the undocumented by limiting cooperation with federal government’s anti-immigration practices. In response, Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding and prosecute city leaders in the federal courts. 

In other words, the sanctuary movement in the US is very much part of an attempt to create urban encampments of liberal resistance.


Sanctuary Cities in the UK?

Much immigration to the US comes from the landmass to its south – hence all the puff and blow about building a wall. The complicated relationship of state to federal law also permits forms of legal and governmental resistance.

In the UK, it’s a different picture. The City of Sanctuary movement has grown apace since it started in Sheffield in 2005, and now there are over 90 initiatives across the country. But its activities seem largely cultural and symbolic: as the cancelling of the Dubs Amendment showed, a racist government can hide behind the large moat that surrounds the UK, making it easier to circumvent mass population movements.

What’s more, cities have little power to resist a central government, whose executive powers have grown over the past century, regardless of the creation of the new raft of mayors. Short of individuals hiding immigrants in their homes, or in their car boots en route from France, it seems there is very little sanctuary cities, and towns can do.

What’s the point?

So what are they for? Largely, their purpose is to support those refugees that did make it through.

The City of Sanctuary movement has some key aimsbuilding bottom-up coalitions, which make a public commitment to welcome refugees, and to create cultural change by encouraging local people and refugees to form personal relationships.

The movement also aims to “offer a positive vision of hospitality” that “will also benefit other migrant groups, as well as host communities”. It’s a little vague, but it seems to be saying that an inclusive attitude benefits existing communities.

This idea of the benefits of inclusivity is echoed by Rosalind Scott, a councillor on Colchester Borough Council, who is attempting to win support to turn Colchester into a sanctuary town. She argues that, “We know that this will benefit everyone by encouraging and strengthening community.”

In other words, sanctuary cities are part and parcel of a social inclusion agenda, from Cantle to Casey, which recognises the damage to the social fabric that can occur when communities are fractured. But whereas those reports provoked debate, the sanctuary cities movement works below mainstream discourse, forming connections within communities.

But can we do more? Considering the success of the US sanctuary cities movement in identifying and reacting to the political fault lines of America, resistance in the UK could be a little bolder.

We have an openly anti-immigrant government, an opposition fraught with ambiguity about the EU and therefore dissipating our energies, and a gross attack on the ‘liberal bubble’ from spatially marginalised Brexiteers and their institutional backers.

But that liberal bubble is in fact urban culture. It represents creativity, learning and advanced culture, social tolerance and difference, and multiculturalism – values that have made the UK both tolerable, mobile and wealthy. It is our Library of Alexandria, and we need to defend it.

Much like the US, then, taking hold of the sanctuary cities idea and making it one of the core elements of the resistance could do much to assert a progressive and outward-looking culture’s right to exist.

Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist writing about culture, society and all things urban.

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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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