Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Time for change

Last week shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper gave a speech on immigration setting out New Labour’s immigration policy plans following their humiliating fourth place in the Eastleigh by-election and criticism of their stance on migration during their years in office. The census clearly shows that the decade preceding 2011 saw the greatest rise in the population in England and Wales in any 10-year period since census taking began growing by 3.7 million or 7.1 per cent. Some 55 per cent of this growth is due to immigration, immigration that primarily occurred under New Labour’s watch. Thus it is no surprise that the party want to demonstrate a clear break with their previous approaches. Concerns about access to social welfare, and impact upon housing markets are at the forefront of fears about immigration.

Pressure on housing and neighbourhoods tends to be concentrated in already deprived urban areas. Described by Tony Travers (academic and journalist) as escalator areas these are the places where new migrants arrive when first in the UK knowing that they can source cheap accommodation, find their feet with the help of co-ethnic groups and stay for a short period until they source better housing elsewhere. Certainly there is evidence that in some areas heavy concentrations of new migrants have restricted the availability of entry level housing, led to the development of unregulated HMOs, and pushed rents and house prices up. It is also clear that some landlords have been quick to cash-in on migrant housing demand by inflating rents, overcrowding properties, and neglecting fire safety and routine maintenance.

Some rural areas have also seen extensive changes. Rural Lincolnshire has seen some of the largest rises in the numbers of migrants of all of the UK with increases outstripping those in London and other cities. Again these increases do impact on house prices while lack of housing availability contributes to an explosion in the use of non-standard accommodation with migrants sometimes living and working in sheds and greenhouses or crammed into caravans and mobile homes. Migrants are often the victims of these problems rather than the cause but the net result is increased population density and a deteriorating environment and housing stock.

As Yvette Cooper is at pains to point out this exploitation of migrant workers requires strong action against rogue landlords and perhaps an increased role for environmental health officers or the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, both of which have experienced austerity cuts.  But like her coalition colleagues much of the emphasis in the shadow home secretary’s speech is upon greater controls and limits, strong action against ‘illegal’ migration and short and long-term action on intra-EU migration – the latter a clear attempt to pander to UKIP voters.

Cooper fails to acknowledge that not only has the UK already become a country of immigration but, like the rest of the EU, we have entered an era of superdiversity where we have already witnessed unprecedented global movement and increase in diversity. In the 21st century mass migration is not a British problem but a global trend. We are part of this flow with 1 in 10 our population living overseas. Our purchase of property in areas such as the Spanish Riviera and lush hills of the Dordogne have impacted upon local housing markets in the same way they have in rural Lincolnshire and inner-city Birmingham. Movement and change are the new norms.  While we might want to slow these movements down by strengthening our borders we cannot turn back the clock. 

We need to acknowledge, understand and plan for change. In urban escalator areas this may mean working with the private sector to provide transition accommodation that is safe, secure and short-term. In rural areas we might work with farmers who are highly dependent on seasonal migrant labour to develop decent temporary accommodation. Embracing and planning for change means we can provide good quality accommodation for migrants and plan proactively, rather than reactively, developing solutions that help reduce overcrowding and maintain the quality of both housing stock and neighbourhoods.

Dr Jenny Phillimore is director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) at Birmingham University’s School of Social Policy

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