1. Economics
August 21, 2017

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

By Nicolas Bosetti

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

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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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