Calm the hysteria

The Conversation published a blogpost by me which they titled “Calm hysteria and assess the real local impact of migration“.

This is a longer version of the post. The published version is here.

There is no doubt that the face of Britain has been changed profoundly by immigration since the start of the twenty-first century. For a long time, the scale of this change was obscured, and the impact it has had remains poorly understood.

The big spike in immigration occurred during the economic boom of the noughties: after the 2001 Census on which local authority official population estimates (and hence, crucially, local authority budgets) were based. A report in 2007 by the Audit Commission attempted for the first time to calculate the sorts of impacts and issues local government had to address – and pay for. Partly in response to this, the government established a Migration Impacts Fund, paid for out of visa fees, to channel resources into localities and regions facing these issues, a Fund that was cancelled in the first months of the Coalition government cuts.

Since the 2011 Census, we are starting to get a more accurate picture of the demographic change the UK has experienced over this period. But we still don’t really know what the numbers mean for people actually living in areas that have changed, or for the agencies charged with planning and delivering public services to changing populations.

Meanwhile, public debate on migration often reduces migrants to a single homogeneous group. Compounding this, media coverage often focuses on exceptional and emotive figures of the migrant (the “bogus asylum seeker”, the “Polish plumber”, the “illegal immigrant” or the “Romanian invasion”) to stand in for an actually diverse and complex population, shaping public perceptions of migration in perverse ways. But the presence of different types of migrants – from a non-domiciled millionaire in a fashionable London neighbourhood to a Filipina hospital worker living in a small town in the Northeast – will obviously have an enormously varied set of implications for the localities where they reside.

A report published last week by the Home Office, Social and Public Service Impacts of International Migration at the Local Level, used a combination of statistical profiling, consultation with local authorities and other service providers, and consultation with experts in different fields, to start the process of properly mapping the actual local impacts of different migration patterns.

I was one of the academics consulted and so read the report with enthusiasm. The report groups the UK’s local authorities into a dozen clusters, based on their demographic and socio-economic profile. It then carefully sets out the available evidence on the impacts associated with six main groups of migrants, including refugee families, low skilled migrant workers and international students, in a series of policy areas, such as health, education, policing, cohesion and the local labour market. Then, in a final section, some tentative conclusions are set out that open a conversation about how we can use these findings to think long-term about local planning and resourcing of services in the face of these challenges. Such a conversation is vitally important, precisely because it is in real places – real regions, cities and neighbourhoods – where the story of Britain’s changing demography is unfolding. 


The following day, however, the report made its way into the press. The Telegraph headline was “Immigrants create overcrowding and fuel tensions, report finds”. The Daily Mail front page declared “True toll of mass migration on UK life: Half of Britons suffer under strain placed on schools, police, NHS and housing”. Of course, it is difficult to translate a complex 59-page research report into a pithy newspaper article – and all governments spin the research they commission so it is reported in a way that fits their political agenda – but the content of such articles seemed to me to bear little resemblance to the content of the report.


For example, the Telegraph, which normally has some of the best coverage of immigration issues, claimed in the lede that the report “found that immigrants were likely to lead to longer waiting times at GP surgeries, be involved in anti-social behaviour and create pest control issues because of overcrowding.” But there is no mention of GP surgeries in the report, except to note that some groups of migrants may be accessing hospital services when GPs would be more appropriate. The report does talk about some serious issues for health service provision, but also notes that many groups of migrants use the NHS much less than the population average, particularly as migrants are more likely to be healthy and young than the population as a whole. Similarly, the report does not say that immigrants are more likely to be involved in anti-social behaviour. It actually says that there was no evidence for this, although lack of awareness of cultural norms in the UK (e.g. around street drinking) might lead to tensions on the street.

The Mail’s article, in contrast, was accurate in its reporting of the findings – but cherry picked them to highlight all the negatives without mentioning any positives, and missed the key finding that high levels of migration only have a heavy impact on services in some sorts of locality. And in response to such relentlessly unbalanced coverage, migrant NGOs and academics quickly took to social media to dismiss the report or to refute the negative findings.

This is typical of a public debate which has become so toxic and polarised that it is impossible to make any statement about migration without appearing to be weighing into a (very asymmetrical) ideological war between “pro-” and “anti-” migration lobbies. Instead of evidence-based discussion, the facts are raided for examples of costs or benefits of migration to fit a pre-prepared agenda.

But, in reality, the demonstrable benefits of migration (especially economic and fiscal) accrue at a national level while the equally undeniable costs (particularly social and service delivery related) fall at a local level.

A sensible conversation would take both of these scales seriously. That means attending to the very real pressures some local authorities face, and thinking hard about how to make local areas more relaxed about change and resilient in the face of local tensions.

About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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