England & Wales, Scotland Brexit, Communities and society

Could a regional immigration system be used to address labour shortages in rural areas?

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When the new points-based immigration system (PBS) comes into effect on 1 January 2021, the UK’s participation in EU freedom of movement will end, and EU citizens will be subject to the same immigration requirements as all other overseas nationals.

This will have a profound impact on inward EU migration- government estimates hold that the number of long-term EU workers entering the UK will fall by around 70 percent over the first five years of the policy. Although the repercussions of this will be felt across the country, rural areas will be hit particularly hard- immigration has quietly played a key role in counteracting labour shortages and depopulation in a number of the UK’s smaller settlements. According to research from Our Global Future, there are 128 local authorities where the working-age population would have shrunk between 2001 and 2016 without immigration.

Taking this into account, the need for rural areas to have continued access to immigration could not be clearer. The forthcoming PBS is set to cause acute labour shortages in all manner of sectors, from health and social care to tourism. The former is under particular pressure in rural areas, as high numbers of pension-age citizens place increased strain on the sector, yet dwindling numbers of working-age citizens result in staffing shortages. Adult social care is facing stark recruitment challenges nationally, with a current vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, equating to 122,000 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) vacancies. Given that EU nationals play a major role in the sector- currently comprising 7.6 percent of the overall workforce– the restrictive impact of the PBS is set to further exacerbate this workforce gap. With regard to tourism, the president of Cumbria Tourism has highlighted the importance of EU citizens due to the region’s ‘unique recruitment challenges’.

It is therefore important to discuss how a regional dimension could be introduced into the new PBS as a way to address these issues. To facilitate this discussion, it is useful to look at international examples of where regional dimensions have been implemented to good effect.

New Zealand’s regional dimension

Within New Zealand’s immigration system, applicants are awarded an additional 30 points for having a job offer based outside of the Auckland region, a region that comprises almost one-third of the overall population.

The transformative effect that the extra points can have on an application incentivises applicants to base themselves outside of Auckland, and in doing so helps to reverse economic decline in the country’s less-populated areas. In 2016/17, 53 percent of all applicants claimed bonus points for holding a job offer outside of the region, a statistic that points to the success of the scheme.

If a similar scheme was implemented in the UK, applicants could be awarded additional points for basing themselves outside of the major cities, an approach that would help to spread the economic benefits of immigration more evenly across the country. Mirroring New Zealand, the scheme could be tied to a job offer, which would not only encourage applicants to remain outside of the major cities, but also provide scope for targeting sectors facing particularly severe recruitment challenges. For example, an applicant could be awarded even more points for possessing a health and social care job offer based in a region experiencing acute staffing shortages in this sector.

Creating a discussion about how a regional approach could be used to counteract labour shortages and skills gaps is hugely important. With the new immigration system set to dramatically reduce EU migration, there is a pressing need to avoid further economic decline in the UK’s smaller settlements. Immigration is a way of achieving this. It provides an inflow of working-age citizens that would otherwise be unavailable due to the challenges posed by an ageing population.

Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that specialise in helping EU citizens to secure their future in the UK.

 

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