UKREN blog

Thursday 30 October 2014

Crowding our schools and taking our houses

Immigration is high on the agenda with the general elections coming up next year. In between heated debates about border patrols in the Mediterranean, Calais and EU membership, Sunder Katwala (British Future) recently emphasised that not all concerns about immigration are racist and called for more open discussion. So let’s discuss the effects of immigration on public services including schools, local councils and the NHS, and housing.

So far, it seems only UKIP has been willing to advocate a concrete solution to this issue; it is perhaps a sign of their capture of the debate that restricting immigration inflows is the only solution we only ever really hear debated. The picture they paint of immigrants crowding our schools and taking our houses, of British services being all but overrun by EU immigrants may be contested. But it seems intuitively likely that services might struggle to keep up with sudden large inflows of unexpected immigrants (as and when these would actually occur in particular localities). And as for any issue, we can come up with different solutions. An open debate would require precisely that: if we accept that this might be a legitimate concern, we need to think genuinely and realistically about different ways to address it so that we can then debate and evaluate them and choose the most suitable approach.

Clearly, such an exercise needs to begin with an assessment of the reality and scope of the issue now and in the future. I suspect that, like for most social issues, such an assessment would find a range of different drivers that together explain problems in public service provision. Immigration can cause a rise in demand, but so can movements within the country, for example from regions further out to increasingly large cities, and changes in demographics associated with ageing can change the shape of demand. Meanwhile, budget decisions affect the level and quality of services provided. If we can gain clearer insight into these different drivers, their interplay and their likely future developments, we can better predict the needs of specific localities.

Now someone might say that this underlines how costly immigration, and by extension, the EU membership that facilitates part of it, is: surely such measures would cost the tax payer. But that obviously overlooks how the immigrants coming to work here add significantly to total tax revenues, offsetting cost. It also ignores how perhaps what is needed is a shift of funds rather than an increase. And it presupposes a view of the EU as simply causing this problem, while we might also see it instead as part of the solution. In as far as we are talking about EU citizens, this is a European issue as well as a British one. The EU’s Structural Funds, including the European Social Fund, already provide assistance to local governments and perhaps their remit could come to include helping to address shortages in public services caused – in part – by immigration. This could be in addition to the EU’s involvement in immigrant integration, which has largely focused on helping cultural minorities to participate in society. Plainly, supporting local service delivery is key to such participation, not only for immigrants but for the population as a whole.

Here at UKREN, we hope to see much more considered and nuanced debate about immigration and this piece was meant to provoke some thought, so please let us know what you think on Twitter @UKRENtweets.

Elise Rietveld

UKREN Project Intern

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