British local authorities should gain immigration powers?

By Keith Nuthall, International News Services 

With the British general election looming this week and the prospect of a change in government, one issue seems to electrify UK electors and politicians above all others, and that is immigration. In a sense, this is not surprising. What could be more an issue of public policy that affects people’s daily lives that the management of who lives in a city, community, neighbourhood or even street?

We all interested in the culture, language, shopping needs, personalities and religion of our neighbours. How they live affects everyone. And when there is change in a community, that can be difficult to deal with – because new friends and acquaintances impact on daily lives.

So, there have been tensions in the UK in the past 10 years, with economic success bringing an influx of immigrant workers and families. Britain is a small island on the global scale (comparatively little immigration has entered Northern Ireland) and its wealth generating centres are densely populated urban areas. Given the UK has a long established and complex culture (some outsiders would say it was impenetrable), settling in Britain is not easy for immigrants. Cultural clashes are inevitable. The contrast with north America, for instance, is clear. In these large continental sized countries – not only founded by immigrants, but whose economic success has been built on immigration – the idea of welcoming new citizens is intrinsically positive. Not so in Europe, where cultures and nations have long controlled a limited space, and there is a much clearer view of locals and outsiders. There ‘foreigners’ – a value laden word if there ever was one – must integrate, or else be deemed a negative force.

But as ever in the complex world of human relationships, such stereo-typing always falls short. Britain has transitioned from a post-war state of a mono-cultural metropolis controlling a multi-cultural empire to a multi-cultural and racial nation state, shorn of its Imperial pretensions. And it has achieved this, despite some obvious tensions, without serious sustained rancour and violence. Descendents of families from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean are simply considered an integral part of the UK these days.

In the past 10 years however, immigration from the eastern member states of the European Union (EU) has dominated immigration. And this has fuelled demands for a policy response. The key issue is that EU citizens have right of abode and work in all EU member states, and that makes traditional immigration controls redundant. Claims from the main opposition Conservative Party in the campaign that they will reduce immigration dramatically have been challenged by the fact that 80% of immigration is now from EU countries – meaning such policies are barnstorming illusions. The other opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, has a more interesting idea: managing immigration on a local basis, restricting work permits to geographical zones where there is a labour shortage. But they could go further. This party has always been about the decentralisation of power, considering that the closer decision-making is to the electors, then the more influence and freedom they will have. Surely then, a sensible suggestion would be to give local authorities immigration powers: deciding how many immigrants they want in their community and from which cultural background. Special supervisory controls could be given to central government to guarantee EU freedom of movement rights. This would mirror the system for property development planning. Because after all, if local authorities are charged with planning the shape and future of their communities, it makes sense for them to influence who lives in their town, cities villages and hamlets, as well as the houses, factories, shops and offices that are built. And there are precedents for this kind of system. In Canada, special immigration controls are given to the French-speaking province of Québec, which uses them to strengthen the distinctiveness of its culture in a largely English-speaking continent.