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On one of the key political issues of the day, local politics has been running scared

Britain's local politicians need to find the language to lead on immigration.

Euromarket, Corby. Image, Googlemaps, fair use.

The Euromarket on George Street in Corby stocks Polish cured meat, Hungarian cereals and Romanian doughnuts. A few yards away, the Job Centre is buzzing with languages from Eastern and Central Europe. A group of local leave supporters had urged us to go to see it with our own eyes: there, they assured us, was the evidence that people were coming to claim benefits. A short visit to the Job Centre reveals the truth: the counter was not handing out JSA, but national insurance numbers.

Corby is one of the most rapidly growing towns in the UK. Formerly home of the Northamptonshire steel industry, the town went into a severe recession in the 70s and 80s. Unemployment soared, an experience which has left its mark on the local population. Fast forward to the early 2000s when, backed by hefty regeneration funds from the then Labour government and the European Union, the town embarked on an ambitious growth plan. Briefly rebranding itself North Londonshire in a bid to attract commuters from the capital, population growth was put at the heart of its strategy.

Almost two decades later, when the EU referendum came along, local leaders admitted they had become complacent. Over halfway into the regeneration plan, the town was well on the way to putting its industrial past behind it. Work was plentiful and the town had transformed its image, branded as the ‘town that dusted off the ashes of its industrial past’ by the Guardian. The local referendum result therefore came as a shock: 64% of Corby’s population voted leave (well above the national average).

The causes of the referendum result are complex. But it is clear that in places like Corby immigration played a pivotal role. Before 2004 the town had hardly any experience of immigration from outside the UK pre-2000 (the town attracted thousands of Scots during the first steel boom). Since then, the size of the foreign population has doubled. In 2016, almost 25% of births locally were to parents from another EU country. This was a significant development in a town where foreigners were a rarity only ten years before. Less clear, however, is whether things could have been managed differently.

The job centre in Corby provides an important clue. Despite all the evidence that claims about benefit tourism and welfare dependence were out of step with reality, welfare was a key focus well before the referendum. IPPR’s work with euro-sceptics before the referendum showed that it was a primary concern.  Hardly a day went by without a story of EU migrants abusing the benefits system in the British tabloids. Yet it seems that dispelling the welfare myth had not been at the forefront of local policymakers’ concerns.

When I raised this question with an official in Corby Council he blanches. With hindsight, he responds, that seems like a good idea. But years of experience had taught the local authority that it was better to keep issues related to immigration under the radar. Talking to local officials from Derby to Boston, with few exceptions (most of which are in London), it is clear that local authorities have come to understand that nothing good can come of talking about immigration. In the words of one official, “You lose if you don’t but you probably lose more if you do.” Migration remains one of the most contentious issues in British politics, far better to leave it with Westminster.

Other factors stand in the way. The state of its finances means that local government is looking to shed responsibilities not assume new ones. Indeed, Northamptonshire Council made the headlines recently for filing for bankruptcy. Local authorities are focusing their stretched resources on the services they have to deliver, care for vulnerable children and collecting bins.

The attitudes of local officials mirror those in national politics. By and large, the local leaders I have spoken to displayed all the hallmarks of remain supporters. Most welcomed the fact that the local area felt more cosmopolitan, pointing out all the great things that were going on in the community  – the salsa night run by Cuban refugees or the Church group that sponsored families from Syria. The more contentious issues regarding welfare, work and places at the overstretched local primary school simply felt too uncomfortable.

From Calabria to Cleveland, experience from around the world shows that local leadership is a key part of managing (even changing) public attitudes on migration. Indeed, in its latest integration strategy, the government made it clear that it expects local authorities to sit in the front seat when it comes to managing the impacts of migration and promoting greater integration. To make this plan a reality two key challenges need to be addressed.

Firstly, spending on integration needs to keep pace with increasing levels of immigration. Resourcing integration is challenging: generally, it’s something people value but don’t want to pay for. Alternative ways of generating income need to be found. One option is to allocate a specific proportion of immigration fees. Recent years have seen marked rises in the cost of applying to work or study in the UK from outside the EU. Since 2007, the cost of becoming a UK citizen has more than doubled. Government should commit itself to investing a proportion of this income into local integration funds. Funds should be boosted by local employers who benefit from ready access to trained workers and universities too have benefited significantly from access to international students.

Secondly, local level leadership needs to be bolstered. Regional and local bodies should have a greater voice in the immigration system. This will both enable local interests to be better represented in the system and increase the accountability of local leaders, forcing them to lean into concerns about wage undercutting and shortages in primary school places, generate and analyse data to establish the extent of their veracity and take steps where issues are identified (or actively dispel myths where this is not the case).

“All politics is local” states one of the adages of American politics. But on one of the key issues of the day, local politics has been running scared. Unlocking a better debate about immigration will only be possible once this is addressed. Reluctant local leaders in places like Corby need to engage with the things that matter to people, including immigration. This means neither pandering to people’s fears nor hiding behind central government’s net migration target, but listening to people’s concerns, engaging with the issues and putting in place policies where people can see them.

About the author

Phoebe Griffith is an associate director at IPPR. She is the author of The Integration Compact published this week.

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