23 November 2023

Britain can’t afford another Birmingham every two years


Revised migration figures show that, as predicted in May this year, net migration in 2022 was radically higher than the already steep 606,000 figure published at that time. In fact, according to the latest ONS data release, net migration in 2022 was 745,000 – well within the range of scenarios modelled by the Centre for Policy Studies. This is of course the highest UK net migration has ever been.  

Now I don’t want to come over all Robert Conquestbut I did tell you so. The revision largely stems from the ongoing efforts of the ONS to improve how migration data is collected and analysed. This is a very welcome programme of work, not least because better data will allow us to have a more accurate discussion about things like pressure on housing and public services. Certainly it should help to improve Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasting in due course.

So let’s start by putting that 745,000 figure in context. The ONS also revised historical data going back to 2012 in its latest release. We can now see that the pre-Brexit record level of net migration was 303,000 (in 2015), and the annual average in the decade before we left the EU was 241,000. So net migration in 2022 was equivalent to two-and-a-half times the pre-Brexit record, and three times the average under the Cameron and May governments. 

Net migration of 745,000 last year also represented additional population growth of around 1.1% – an incredible number for the space of a single year solely from immigration. And we mustn’t forget that this migration surge came after net migration of 467,000 in 2021. In other words, immigration grew the population of the UK by an additional 1.2 million people (1.8%) in just two years. That’s the equivalent of a city the size of Birmingham.     

Now very few people would disagree that some level of migration to the UK is desirable. But it is clear that we cannot go on adding new Birminghams to the UK every two years. Not given how bad we currently are at building houses and essential infrastructure. And it is not without worrisome implications for social cohesion either – as the more radical fringes of recent pro-Palestine marches have demonstrated. 

Indeed, it’s worth bearing in mind congestion effects. It would be one thing if immigration was spread out evenly across the UK. But in fact, around 90% of migrants come to England, predominantly London and the southeast. These are the areas where the housing crisis, for example, is already most acute because of our failure to build enough homes. 

Now, some people are keen to argue that the 2022 number represents ‘peak migration’. In their favour, they can point to the ONS figure for the year ending June 2023 – 672,000. Although of course, this is just a provisional number. If it is revised up by the same amount (23%) as the full year 2022 figure at the next data release in May 2024, it will come in at about 825,000. I doubt any revision would be quite this large because of recent changes to ONS emigration modelling assumptions. But even so, we shouldn’t take the 672,000 as gospel. 

The other thing worth bearing in mind is the updated Home Office visa data published today, which cover the period to September 2023. On the face of it, the rate of increase in visas being issued has slowed significantly – though numbers have not declined. The number of non-visitor, non-temporary visas issued in Q1-Q3 2023 was up by 3% on the same period last year.

A common argument is to say that numbers have been inflated in recent years by one-off influxes of Ukrainian refugees and British passport holders from Hong Kong fleeing the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, a total of 396,000 visas have been issued for these immigration routes (although not all prospective migrants will have taken them up). 

Yet if we strip migrants using these routes out of the visa statistics, the underlying visa trend is striking: up by 26% in the first three quarters of 2023 compared to the same period last year. In other words, the fundamental picture – ever increasing immigration – seems to be unchanged. 

Now an uptick in emigration is going to offset at least some of this. Although as both the ONS and OBR have noted, given the changing composition of migration (far more non-EU nationals) and changing migrant behaviours (more students moving onto two-year graduate visas after their studies, for example), there is a lot of uncertainty around emigration now. But visa extensions in the year to September 2023 are up by 48% (225,000) on the year to September 2022. So far, emigration seems to be structurally lower than before Brexit, when most immigrants came from the EU.   

Obviously this is all a bit of a problem for the Tories, who were elected in 2019 on a manifesto which promised ‘overall numbers will come down’. Generally, 2019 is taken as the baseline for this promise. And we now know that net migration in 2019 was around 184,000. So to get back to that level from 2022’s record of 745,000 net migrants, numbers would have to be cut by 75% (560,000). 

That’s a tall order. It’s hard to imagine the Treasury or the Department for Education or the Department of Health and Social Care being happy with the measures that would be needed to achieve such a deep cut before the next election – even if it is held at the last possible moment, in January 2025.  

Yet absent of any policy changes, it seems likely that net migration will remain extraordinarily high. And voters are unlikely to take that kindly. According to the YouGov tracker, 60% of all voters think immigration has been too high over the last 10 years – only 9% think it has been too low, and 20% about right. This rises to 87% (and 2% and 11%) among Conservative voters. James Cleverly, the new Home Secretary, really is stuck between a rock and a hard place.     

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Karl Williams is Deputy Research Director at the Centre for Policy Studies.