Monday, 4 April 2016

Migration is part of English life

Communities large and small require a constant supply of labour if they are to be sustainable. Even ever-growing London needs not only the much-vaunted higher skilled workers who may grudgingly be allowed in from overseas to refresh the talent pool but also its hidden army of low-paid, less-qualified workers who oil the wheels of service, healthcare, cleaning and transport. As people migrate into the capital in search of economic betterment, the demand they create for accommodation drives up property prices, out of the reach of these workers who lived there before and need to live there still, creating a sort of ethnic cleansing of the unqualified. What is not so evident is the parallel to this picture being experienced in thousands of rural and coastal communities.
At the start of the 20th century, there were some 1m agricultural workers populating the towns and villages of rural England. As these were deprived of their living by automation and changes in farming and fishing practices, many left the country for industrial employment, denuding their former communities. Smaller, less influential populations were further deprived of transport links, and public services.  In recent decades, city-wards migration has been replaced to some extent by a reverse flow, as members of the new, affluent, urban middle class themselves experience the effects of property inflation. These have been two-fold: they too have been squeezed to pay for their homes; but they have been able to take profits by relocating and sometimes starting businesses in more attractive, often rural or seaside, environments, with lower costs and better quality of life. For such incomers, lack of public services may be of less importance than to long-term residents, being typically more mobile and able to pay for services privately. But life-style businesses in rural towns have limited growth, employment and wages. As more of the static number of available houses are acquired by the wealthy incomers, fewer are available or affordable to the less skilled, lower paid inhabitants of these communities. The younger generation is forced away from the countryside to find employment, leaving villages as micro versions of London: communities of the affluent with no local supply of unskilled labour, to lift the seasonal crops, to care for the ageing, to drive the non-existent buses. Is it any wonder that there is demand for workers from overseas who are prepared to tolerate multi-occupation housing and unsocial hours?

Ministers make the assumption that the public will accept skilled foreign workers into the country, because they are presumably nice middle-class people and relatively few in number. The reality is that in London and in leafy and seaside towns, there is still a need for lower-paid, less qualified workers to keep services going; but they are unable to live there , thanks to the inflationary effect of ignoring house-building for so long. In a market economy, only higher supply will mollify price inflation. If villages are to remain multi-generational or evolve into retirement communities, they will need not only a supply of labour but a supply of housing which can be afforded by first-time buyers, young families and lower-paid workers; and effective transport services to connect them to the services they need for health, education and employment. Until then, we need to think carefully about our  attitudes towards migrants and which ones we really need in our communities. Too may affluent house-buyers is no solution.

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