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In our very first report, Metro Growth: The UK’s economic opportunity, the City Growth Commission presented an evidenced case arguing that economic growth is driven by cities. We’ve since set out to identify the ways in which cities in the UK can fully exploit their economic potential, whether it’s through investing in the progression of the low-skilled and low paid, or evolving our infrastructure for example. If there is a key takeaway here it’s that city-regions (metros) should have greater autonomy to do what’s right for them locally. More powers should be devolved to metros with a proven track record of good governance – and these should include new freedoms and flexibilities over immigration policy.

I’m not going to bury you in numbers or shout about all of the ways in which immigrants in the UK contribute to economic growth; these arguments are often drowned out, but are legitimate and should be taken as given. Also, while the numbers are important, the Commission considered more than just the math and the money when thinking about where we stand on immigration.

We’re starting from the premise that just as metros differ in their labour markets and leadership, immigration and attitudes towards immigration differ as well, often from place-to-place. A national, or centralised, approach to immigration policy obscures these nuances, leaving us and our politicians to negotiate a false dichotomy – the nation is either for or against immigration. If the ‘national’ climate is perceived by politicians to be hostile towards immigration, what does that mean for cities that are happy to welcome more migrants into their universities, to fill skill shortages, and to start new businesses?

It may be helpful here to clarify how the Commission sees the ‘nation’. An analogy we’ve found useful in capturing the dynamism of what a nation is in modern times is one which draws on our understanding of the national labour market as a “network of interrelated local labour markets” to recast a nation as a network of interrelated city-regions. While connected through commuting flows and the movement of people through the housing market, these city-regions are distinctive in the social and economic challenges they face. Thus, a centrally-imposed, blanket immigration policy may work for some city-regions, but will stifle the growth of others.

In making our initial recommendations about immigration policy, we were also sensitive to questions of belonging and identity, which is why we emphasise integration. We focus specifically on labour market integration because this is the foundation for wider social cohesion; migrants must first be seen to be contributing in order for their stay to be understood as fair and reciprocal. Our view is that metro areas with relatively high levels of immigration should support the integration of internationally trained immigrants into the labour market, but that the costs of English language courses and any other provision accessed should be recouped from the migrant when they are professionally certified and/or hired by a local employer.

We also believe that sending international students home after studying at our world-class higher education institutions is clearly a wasted opportunity. As we noted in our most recent report, UniverCities: The knowledge to power growth, many of these international students could put their talents to use within the UK, particularly those that are entrepreneurial and would be interested in starting a business locally following graduation. Although the Home Office has created the ‘Graduate Entrepreneur’ visa category, take-up is woefully low (174 grants were made out of a possible 1,000 in 2013), which is why we’re proposing that ‘Core Cities’ be allowed to pilot a more flexible form of the visa that would expand the eligibility period for students to apply from year to five. If take-up proved more successful, this could be rolled out in other cities across the UK.

In our final report, launching this week on 22nd October, we’ll be pushing for even more reform of immigration policy, but more importantly, for our metros to be given more leeway when it comes to matters of migration. We propose this in respect of the diversity of our metros – not just in terms of demographics, but all of the ways in which our metros differ, including in their need and capacity to host more migrants. In relinquishing control at the centre, there will be more opportunities for our metros to prosper, which ultimately means greater prosperity for the nation.

Brhmie Balaram is a Researcher at the RSA for the City Growth Commission. She tweets at @Brhmie.


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