On the 1st of January 2021, UK immigration policy will undergo some seismic changes. Not only will the new points-based immigration system come into effect, but participation in EU freedom of movement will come to an end, meaning that EU citizens will be subject to the same immigration requirements as all other overseas nationals. 

The impact of these changes will hit rural areas particularly hard. Immigration – particularly from the EU – has quietly played a pivotal role in counteracting depopulation and decline in a number of the UK’s smaller settlements.

Yet according to government estimates, the number of long-term EU workers entering the UK will fall by around 70 percent over the first five years of the new policy, reducing a vital source of population growth. 

It is therefore important to discuss whether the points-based system could be reconfigured so that all regions of the UK have continued access to the people they need. At present, the absence of regional flexibility within the new system is destined to cause damaging shortages of working-age citizens in many of the UK’s less-populated areas. Yet this could be averted by placing local policymakers at the heart of decision-making.

Why is regional flexibility important?

As touched upon, immigration is of huge significance to many of the UK’s smaller settlements, despite the fact that such places tend not to have high populations of overseas nationals. According to research from Our Global Future, there are 128 local authorities where the working-age population would have shrunk between 2001 and 2016 without immigration, but instead grew or was stable.

This statistic evidences the transformative economic and demographic effect that immigration can have on areas that suffer from ageing, dwindling populations and as a result, economic inactivity. Different parts of the UK have very different needs when it comes to immigration, so it makes sense for the system to be designed in a way that accounts for this variation in needs. 

But before stating with certainty that a regional approach is required, two important questions need to be answered: is a regional dimension feasible in a UK context, and if so, how could it be structured? To this end, it is useful to look at international examples of where regional dimensions have been implemented to good effect.

Canada’s regional dimension

Regional dimensions tend to operate via one of two methods: visas that allow states and provinces to select their own applicants from the ‘Expression of Interest’ (EOI) pool; and awarding additional points to applicants who apply outside of the main hubs and cities. 

Canada’s approach encapsulates the first of these methods. Introduced in 1996, the Provincial Nominee Programme (PNP) enables individual provinces and territories to select the applicants most suited to their demographic and economic needs. Because the eligibility requirements for each PNP are set by the province, a successful application hinges upon possessing characteristics deemed desirable by the provincial government. 

The number of applicants entering the country via the PNP has steadily increased from just under 40,000 in 2013, to around 50,000 in 2017. It is now the largest stream in the economic class route into Canada. 

Whilst the overarching principle of this approach seems ideal for remedying depopulation and decline in the UK, its implementation would prove difficult. Canada’s federal structure means that provinces have the political institutions needed to manage devolved immigration policy. The same cannot be said for the UK, the local authorities of which have little experience of decision-making in this area.

New Zealand’s regional dimension

New Zealand’s approach embodies the second of the two methods. Rather than enabling individual provinces to select candidates from the EOI pool, applicants are given an additional 30 points for having a job offer based outside of the Auckland region, a region that comprises almost a third of the overall population. 

The additional 30 points means that applicants can score 80 points on the employment section of the test alone- halfway towards the current automatic selection threshold of 160 points- and as a result incentivises applicants to base themselves outside of the most populous city. In 2016/17, 

53 percent of applicants claimed bonus points for holding a job offer outside the region of Auckland.

This method is more practically appropriate for the UK- applicants could, for example, be awarded extra points for basing themselves outside of London, Birmingham and Manchester, helping to spread population growth more evenly across the country. And as with New Zealand, the scheme could be tied to a job offer to encourage applicants to remain outside these cities.  

Reflecting on the issues discussed, there is certainly scope for taking discussion of how a regional approach could work in the UK to the next level. Collaboration between national and local level governments has worked to good effect overseas, and with the new immigration system set to cause a host of new challenges, it is perhaps time to give greater influence to those best placed to address these challenges.