Friday 26 August 2016 4:37 am

We should regionalise immigration decisions – starting with a London visa

Londoners voted if not resoundingly, then certainly confidently, for remaining in the EU. And in the wake of the result, a determination has emerged to assert that London is open – a statement at once defiant and optimistic, and grounded in culture as much as in economics.

Around 850,000 Londoners were born in another EU country – almost one in 10. EU workers fill many more higher-skilled managerial, technical, and skilled trades jobs in London than they do across the rest of the UK. Given the increasing importance of these sectors, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that London’s competitiveness as a global city is intrinsically linked to its openness to international talent.

While discussion continues over the status of the UK’s existing EU workers, there are also increasingly persistent calls for a London visa to give preferential treatment to EU nationals within the capital. Is the idea really worth exploring? And what can we learn from regional visa schemes in other countries?

Read more: Option Zero: Why Britain should embrace unilateral free trade post-Brexit

London would not be the first city to seek regional flexibility in immigration policy. Shanghai has recently made it easier for foreigners to gain permanent resident status, as part of a package of policies aimed at establishing the city as a leading innovation economy. Conversely, in California, the focus was on securing flexibility for lower-skilled labour needs.

In Canada, provinces must adhere to national immigration minimum criteria, but can set their own policies for the migrants they would like to host, with faster processing times and easier-to-meet requirements for those who commit to taking up a job offer or join family in the province. When setting their own rules, most provinces have focused on economic development and local labour market demand.

Since 2015, provinces can also influence the national points system by awarding migrants additional points if they agree to move to that province. Initially, it was largely rural ones like Manitoba which took up the opportunity to host migrants. But some 10 years after the scheme was introduced, all provincial governments lobbied the government to increase the annual cap, which was raised in 2013 and 2014.

Immigration policy was fully devolved to Quebec in 1991 in the wake of the Canada-Quebec Accord: the Quebec government obtained the power to determine the rules and the level of migration to the province, but also to select all migrants (economic, family sponsorship and refugees). The federal government can only overrule candidates for security and medical reasons. Quebec runs separate programmes for skilled workers, entrepreneurs and investors, all of which consider work history, education, and French language skills.

In Australia, the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme allows employers to sponsor visas in regions with specific labour shortages. It’s used in areas with low populations, with employers in the major cities of Brisbane, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Sydney, Wollongong, Melbourne and Perth excluded. As with similar visa initiatives in the UK, such as the Tier One visa, employers must show that they have exhausted the local labour market prior to petitioning for a foreign entrant.

While these regional systems seek to divert migration away from large cities, rather than sustain it, the principles remain the same: that access to talent, both high and lower skilled, is critical to economic development, and that different regions have different labour market challenges.

What of the practicalities? Could City Hall really set new immigration policies for London? In practice, national government would still play a role in scrutinising applications in terms of security, as is the case in Canada and Australia. A London visa would not mean devolving decisions, but allowing the mayor and/or businesses to sponsor a certain number of visas, which would entitle their holders to live and work in the capital. The number of visas would need to be negotiated between national government and the city, based on data on London’s skills shortages.

Will migrants really be restricted to working and living in London? There would inevitably be some visa-holders who move out of the capital or overstay, and some people without visas who would settle in London. But that is nothing new. However, by adding the London visa status to the range of paper work needed for employment (for example national insurance numbers) and accommodation (landlord checks, bank account status), it would be possible to ensure migration from the capital to other regions is kept to a minimum.

Furthermore, if a London visa system took a high-skills, points-based approach, the appeal for London visa workers to leave the capital would be small, given the concentration of high-skilled jobs in the city. This is backed by research conducted by the Canadian government, which found that large cities had by far the highest retention rates (over 80 per cent after 15 years).

The authority to issue regional visas need not stop at London. One of the benefits of this debate is that it forces individuals, communities, and regions to think about the impact of immigrants. As the Brexit vote illustrated, there is a wide range of attitudes towards the issue – with some areas being far less politically inclined to support sustained immigration than others. A regional approach would allow different parts of the country to set different policies, and to re-evaluate these in the light of economic and social change.

London’s openness to talent is vital to its success as a global capital, and to the success of the UK as a whole. A London visa system would be one way to sustain this success, while respecting the different views of other regions.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.