This report explores how to support migrants and British people to live well together. We argue for a more coherent integration strategy in areas characterised by increasing diversity and ongoing, high inflows of immigration.


Background and context

The UK is now one of the most diverse countries in the developed world. Academics have produced compelling positive evidence to show that racial prejudice is declining and that segregation is decreasing in the UK. Nevertheless, many British people feel unsettled by the flux and change brought on by immigration. Public attitudes towards immigration are hardening and showing no signs of abating. Politicians and policymakers are faced with the formidable challenge of reconciling the effects of globalisation with an intangible sense of loss of identity across many communities in the UK.

Integration should be a major focus for policymaking: immigration has changed the UK irreversibly and will continue to do so in the future. But governments have repeatedly struggled to formulate effective policy in this area.

The previous Labour government introduced a practical community cohesion agenda and explored ways for newcomers to ‘earn’ their right to citizenship. But its shortcoming was to believe that it was possible to compel or force people to integrate, either by placing conditions on migrants seeking to settle (through a contractual approach to citizenship) or by engineering interaction through target-setting in public services. In reality, these approaches failed to mobilise and unify people.

In contrast to the Labour administration, the current Coalition government has tried (but failed) to substantially bring down overall immigration to the UK. Cuts to resources for integration policy (such as reductions in funding for English language provision and the scrapping of the Migration Impacts Fund) reflect not only the government’s choice to prioritise deficit reduction but also a clear shift in philosophy, one which discourages settlement and takes a hands-off, devolved approach, leaving integration and cohesion largely to individuals and local authorities with little direction or funding from central government.

Political theory and framing

It is more or less inevitable that the UK will continue to be a country of high immigration for the foreseeable future. Politicians and policymakers need to think deeply about how equality can be achieved in an era of high migration, greater diversity and increased mobility. This means striving not only for greater material equality – ensuring that immigration policy is fair and contributing to a prosperous economy – but also for greater social equality – enabling migrants and British people to contribute actively to society and to engage positively with one another.

A failure to seek social equality results in a political vacuum, which the far right is all too ready to exploit. In response, political theorists have argued for a shift away from target-setting and transactional, centralist policies and towards more relational, local and democratic approaches to integration, including the preservation of ‘public things’. There is a degree of subjective interpretation to what these ‘public things’ might be, but there are undoubtedly institutions and services that the British public cherishes, such as the public realm of town centres and parks, libraries and institutions such as children’s centres, schools and the NHS. Any sense that immigration is threatening or undermining these ‘things of value’ causes discontent and can lead to frustrations directed towards migrants, which creates intense challenges for integration.

In a time of austerity it is unrealistic to expect central government to invest heavily in migrant integration. Instead, our vision is for policymakers at the national and local level to build a society that promotes collective responsibility and mutual respect for ‘public things’ so that all citizens can live well together. We refer to this goal as achieving ‘shared ground’, and it is based on three key principles:

  • managing the impacts of flux and churn from immigration
  • building inclusivity in institutions and services
  • instilling responsibility among all citizens.

What would shared ground look like? An area where people are living well together would have an engaged local authority with the power to respond to the impacts of flux and churn in the local population, and to ensure that local people feel secure. There would be inclusive settings for people to take part in British ways of life. Newcomers would be welcomed and supported to settle in the area. Where friction arises, local authorities would respond by listening to residents and alleviating tension (arising out of misunderstandings and incivilities, for example) through negotiation and mediation. Public spaces and institutions where local people spend time together would be well maintained. Active community groups, voluntary organisations and local enterprises would be appreciated and supported.

A framework for understanding communities

Our research set out to explore the extent to which this goal of ‘shared ground’ was being met in two diverse areas of the UK: Normanton in Derby and Forest Gate in the London Borough of Newham. We chose these areas because they have populations made up of British residents and migrants (both new and long-established) with a broad range of religions and ethnicities. Both areas have a young age profile and a high population turnover. They are economically poor but nevertheless socially thriving communities, boasting a range of civic institutions and community hubs and services – both governmental and non-governmental.

Our focus was on the everyday experiences of local citizens and migrants, and our approach was in-depth and qualitative. This allowed us to build up a comprehensive picture of how migrants and British people mix and interact in ethnically diverse areas – something that is often missed by large-scale quantitative analyses and opinion polls.

We group our research analysis and findings under three headings.

People and relationships

Many of our research participants chose to self-identify based on personal attributes and characteristics rather than religion or ethnicity. It is important to reconsider how we characterise and label people in our society. Simple ethnic or nationality labels ignore the messy complexity of human existence – they are important for some, but not for everyone.

Intense frictions can arise in the relations between ‘fixed residents’ and ‘transient residents’ (particularly in areas characterised by high inflows of immigration). This can make the integration of newcomers a deeply challenging process. Finding locally relevant ways to alleviate tension and encourage people to settle is important.

Vulnerability related to the degree to which a person is more or less transient (sometimes due to personal choice, sometimes due to external factors) can result in exploitation, such as low wages or poor housing conditions. This can severely hamper the process of integration for migrants and their families, but it can also have knock-on effects on other residents – for example, through wages being undercut and residential overcrowding resulting in antisocial behaviour – which in turn generate animosity within the wider community.

Public spaces and civic institutions

Public places and civic institutions – especially nurseries, schools, libraries and parks – are where organic ‘everyday’ integration takes place. But pressure to make cuts to public places and services threatens the ‘public things’ which so many more-settled residents (many of whom will be British citizens) collectively hold dear. Anxieties are exacerbated when migrants settle in neighbourhoods where institutions are already under pressure and resources are scarce.

Services and support

Forecasting the movement of people is challenging and many local authorities are working in a void of data. This can make it difficult to plan local services and provide adequate support to newcomers, as well as to established residents.

Much support for newcomers is delivered well through mainstream services. But we also found that some specialist service provision is needed to support newcomers to settle and integrate, such as targeted English language provision and specialist support for vulnerable citizens.

Local authorities have been given devolved responsibility for community and integration policy, but no additional means to raise revenue to fund programmes and no consistent political leadership from central government. Some areas have developed strategies for dealing with the pressures of flux and diversity that have resulted in better integration outcomes. But others are stuck in firefighting mode, and so have limited scope to support integration and respond appropriately to the impacts of population flux and churn.

Strategies for building ‘shared ground’ in the UK

Our strategies have the shared ground principles at their heart and are shaped and informed by our research findings. Our recommendations do not target migrants; rather, we are seeking ways to strengthen relationships between all citizens.

Preparing for shared ground: practical initiatives to forecast population changes and cope with churn

  1. A local data-registration scheme should be created to collect information about UK residents, both British citizens and migrants alike. We recommend collecting information about how many fixed or transient residents are living in the local area. This would be done by incorporating a few additional questions into existing council tax forms.
  2. Local authorities with high levels of population churn should regulate the private rented housing sector through landlord licensing schemes to prevent overcrowding and poor living conditions, and should be given the power and responsibility to monitor local employers in order to enforce the minimum wage and, where necessary, impose and recoup fines where rules are flouted.
  3. Local authority areas with high inflows of immigration should put in place strategies for mediation and negotiation aimed at alleviating community tensions that arise from population churn. These approaches will need to be responsive to each individual area, but we suggest measures such as anti-rumour campaigns in everyday settings and local area mediation schemes to encourage dialogue and compromise.

Facilitating shared ground: creating inclusive settings to deepen connections and promote interaction

  1. Incentive and outreach schemes should be created to encourage more parents of all backgrounds to send their children from age two to inclusive preschool settings.
  2. Funding should be provided for services and activities that encourage inclusivity, and should be allocated in a transparent manner. This is important in order to prevent segregation from setting in, and would provide a fair way of distributing funds at a time when resources are scarce.
  3. Some community organisations provide support that is specific to one ethnic group, particularly for newcomers, which can aid integration. These groups should receive funding from local authorities, but only if they can demonstrate that they are providing a service that is in the public interest. We also recommend that local authorities should provide some time-limited subsidies and give recognition to ethnic or religious-specific organisations delivering valuable, specialised support services.

Cementing shared ground: supporting and promoting settlement

  1. Central government should set up a Settlement Support Fund, paid for from citizenship fees and an increased levy on visa fees, to allocate money to local areas experiencing a high degree of population churn.
  2. Incentives to carry out voluntary work should be introduced for people seeking British citizenship, alongside a more localised, inclusive application process.

The need to build shared ground is becoming ever more pressing in diverse areas characterised by high immigration. Areas that foster respect for people of all identities, maintain effective enforcement of law and order, put in place local strategies for mediation and negotiation when friction arises, prioritise well-maintained public spaces, and support a vibrant civil society will have better integration outcomes for migrants and greater social equality for all citizens. This approach is also likely to make immigration a less toxic issue politically, as anti-immigration views are often shaped by local experiences. Finding ways of increasing public acceptance of high inflows of immigration is important, because it is likely to be the reality for years to come.