I’m sure it hasn’t passed you by that we are now one year on from the vote to leave the European Union and the process of negotiating has begun, with much attention focused on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.
Here in the North East our communities and businesses have benefitted from the presence of our EU migrant friends, however, I have continued to be surprised by the misunderstanding of the demographic reality of our region and in particular our immigration numbers.
Time and time again in doorstep conversations across the North East during the referendum campaign in both urban and rural areas, and affluent and poorer communities, I realised that many people had significant misconceptions about the racial make up of our region. One such conversation on Tyneside involved a voter telling me, ‘there must be at least half a million immigrants in the North East”. As the total population of the region stands at around two and half million you can see why I was often flabbergasted by what I heard.
The reality is the North East remains a largely homogenous region, with 94% of residents identifying as White British, and the majority labelling themselves as Christian. According to the last census, only 1.8% of residents in the North East identify as Muslim, many of whom are British born.
The North East has also experienced the smallest increase in foreign born residents at the time of the 2011 census, and still has the lowest foreign-born population of any English region. Not only is immigration to our region low, our youth population is in decline. In contrast the number of over 65s is increasing meaning that as the ageing population retires, it significantly depletes the workforce of the region. This problem is compounded by a ‘brain drain’ from the North East as young people leave the region for other cities after completing university. In the last ten years, 75,000 freshly graduated students left the North, citing more dynamic opportunities and greater ‘cultural amenities’ in cities in the south of England, often due to the more diverse populations that thrive there.
My view is that immigration invigorates local communities both culturally and economically. Immigrants are very likely to be in work, and are three times more like to launch a company than their native-born counterparts. Marks & Spencer, Cobra Beer and Tesco were all founded by immigrants; Ireland, India and Germany being the top three countries supplying us with our entrepreneurs.
By creating and supporting jobs, a steady influx of people is necessary for regions such as the North East to keep the local economy functioning and attractive to investors. We are a region that was built from people migrating here from the UK and abroad, and this needs to continue.
Our universities rely heavily on people from overseas to bring in much needed income and to undertake research. Foreign-born students in the UK are also vital for our economy, contributing £billions in gross output, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs. In fact due to their importance, no less than six parliamentary committees have recommended removing students from migration reduction targets. In a post-referendum poll, barely a quarter of voters (Leavers and Remainers alike) classified international students as immigrants anyway.
The benefits of international students do not go unrecognised in the North East. To encourage an exchange of talent, Sunderland University has overseas offices in 58 countries, and with our many renowned and competitive universities, the North East is an attractive area for overseas students to study. The challenge, however, is incentivising them to stay in the region after graduation.
In the UK, the continued legal residency of international students is dependent on them finding a job with a Home Office-registered employer, that pays over £20,000 per year, within a couple of months of graduation. This can exclude the North East from the brightest foreign-born talent, where London and the South East has the pull factor due to higher average salaries.
So please tell your family and friends, in fact shout it from the rooftops, without an increase in inward migration the North East of England will remain the poorest English region and may well get poorer still.