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Amid all the debate about migration, little attention has been devoted to the impact on individual towns and cities...
Amid all the debate about migration, little attention has been devoted to the impact on individual towns and cities. The debate has centred on 'Britain', as if international migrants are uniformly spread about the country. While there is some evidence that the much-discussed Poles have fanned out more than earlier migrant groups, official statistics imply major cities have seen the biggest impacts.

Newly-published mid-2004 to mid-2005 population figures show extraordinary rises in the 'migration' element for a number of urban authorities. Westminster registered an eye-watering 12,900 jump, which when added to 'natural' change, resulted in a 14,300 rise in overall population - a rise of 5% in a single year. Kensington & Chelsea was not far behind, registering in-migration of 10,900 and an overall rise of 12,200.

But the phenomenon is not restricted to the capital. Newcastle upon Tyne recorded net in-migration of 6,800; with inwards-movement also recorded in Edinburgh (4,100), Manchester (1,600); Liverpool (2,800); Sheffield (3,800); Leeds (1,700), Nottingham (2,500); Birmingham (2,200) and Bristol (2,600). Smaller centres such as Norwich (2,300), York (1,600) and Carlisle (1,700) also registered a significant influx of people.

Of course, these net numbers include migration both within the UK and to/from overseas. But it is the sudden leap in international in-migration that has helped push up urban populations. As recently as the period from 1991 to 2001, many cities outside London experienced population falls. Yet another rise is expected next year.

New migrants are helping British cities rebuild their populations. However, the creaky and unresponsive local government finance system means places with increasing populations will not benefit directly from extra council tax or business rate income. At best, the heavily-damped revenue support grant will eventually provide a slight increase in Whitehall support.

Rising populations in British cities are surely good news. But the implication of sudden changes in the make-up of an authority's population has been little researched. A national surge in net immigration will lead to very localised pressures on services and community relations. London is almost certainly now more 'foreign born' than New York City.

As the US shows, migration can be good for society. But in Britain, where the issue of rapid mass immigration has emerged only recently, neither politicians or researchers have caught up with the implications this change brings for the country. Is migration really pushing up city populations? Is it possible to separate ethnicity, immigration, asylum and religion in popular discourse? How far do public services rely on migrant skills? What will be the impact on local politics? Researchers and politicians will have to address these questions and many others. To date, they have hardly started.

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