Is there an immigration policy that can appeal to both cities and towns?

Handsworth, Birmingham, 2017. Image: Getty.

Divisions by geography, between small towns and big cities, were one of several divides illuminated in the referendum campaign, alongside those by education and wealth, age and ethnicity. In England and Wales the biggest cities and university constituencies voted to remain, while towns and smaller cities voted to leave. 

Attitudes towards immigration played a key role in how people voted: commentators have highlighted a clash of values on this issue, with this country’s younger and more cosmopolitan cities set against its older, more socially conservative towns. 

But how large are the differences in attitudes to immigration between cities and towns? Are we really a nation of two opposing tribes? And are there approaches to immigration policy that appeal to voters in cities and in towns? 

Demographic change has been a driver of the values divide between towns and cities. Age, education and social contact are all associated with attitudes to immigration, with younger people and graduates more likely to see immigration and ethnic diversity in positive terms than older people. Over the last 30 years, villages and towns have lost young people and graduates – in part because of deindustrialisation and lack of jobs, in part because more than twice as many young people are now leaving home to go to university, often not to return. 

This stark, place-based divergence in attitudes presents dilemmas for the main political parties. For Labour it means bridging the gap between its traditional support in northern and midland industrial towns and its cosmopolitan voters in inner cities. The Conservatives now face a similar challenge too. The party’s heartlands in the suburbs, the towns of southern England and the countryside, have all become more diverse as minority ethnic populations move out of the inner cities. Yet its 2019 victory was driven by winning ‘Red Wall’ seats – Brexit-voting post-industrial towns in England and Wales. 

The temptation for the Conservatives could, therefore, be to sound tough on immigration to keep Stoke and Scunthorpe onside – at the risk of alienating voters in Stevenage and Sutton, which it needs to appeal to if the party is to stay in power.   

New research published today by British Future and the Policy Institute at King’s College London finds some differences in public attitudes to immigration between towns and cities, but also much common ground. Asked “On a scale of 1-10 do you feel that immigration has had a positive or negative impact on the UK, including your local community,” majorities in both towns and cities are ‘Balancers’ on immigration: 57 per cent of people living in small towns gave a score of 4-7, and 50 per cent of those in large cities said the same. 

The difference is in the margins: while in small towns the remainder split quite equally between those who viewed immigration negatively (with 23 per cent giving a score of 1-3) and positively (20 per cent giving a score of 8-10), in large cities respondents were significantly more likely to feel very positive about immigration, with 33 per cent giving a score of 8-10 and only 17 per cent giving a score of 1-3.


Attitudes towards the impact of immigration in large cities and small towns. Q: On a scale of 1-10 do you feel that immigration has had a positive or negative impact on the UK, including your local community (1 most negative, 10 most positive). Source: ICM survey of 2,305 GB adults undertaken for British Future, 10-13 January 2020.

The National Conversation on Immigration, the biggest-ever public consultation on the issue, which held face-to-face discussions among citizens in every nation and region of the UK, also found that most people, irrespective of where they live, are ‘Balancers’. Typically, they see benefits from migration, in terms of the skills that migrants bring and the jobs they fill; but they also seek more control and voice concerns about rapid population change, pressures on public services and social segregation. 


There are some clear geographic differences in attitudes to immigration between big cities and the rest of the UK. Demography plays a part in this, as does the fact that proportionally fewer international migrants live in towns, reducing positive social contact between newcomers and the communities they join. Big cities also have a longer history of receiving international migration, so city dwellers are less likely to feel concerned by rapid changes brought by recent migration from the EU. 

While differences in attitudes between cities and towns are real, there is still much common ground. But there is a risk that divisions will grow unless they are addressed. Doing so could involve economic policy that is responsive to the needs of towns and devolution of decision-making to the regions and nations of the UK. It should bring place into immigration policy-making, increasing public engagement so that that immigration policy is seen less as a distant power visited (from London) upon towns. And it should involve much greater effort to manage local pressures and get integration right too.

The government needs to tell a different story about immigration that can be argued with confidence in cities and towns, across generations and social classes. Mixed messages – an “open” voice in cities and a “control” voice in towns – will not inspire public confidence. Government narratives need to focus on both control and fairness if they are to connect and rebuild trust across the towns and cities of the UK. 

Jill Rutter is director of strategy at think tank British Future.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.