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.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.