1. Government
March 17, 2020

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

By Jill Rutter

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. 

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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.

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