In this week's Queen's Speech, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, indicated that she would be open to a regionally differentiated immigration system, raising the prospect of immigrants being incentivised to come to the UK, but only if they agree to bypass London and settle in other parts of the UK.
The Home Secretary is not the first to float such an idea. New Labour experimented with a variant on the idea in 2004, via its 'Fresh Talent' scheme, which sought to incentivise students at Scottish universities to stay on and work after graduating. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats put the idea of a regionally differentiated immigration system in their manifesto. Then, as now, the argument was based on an assumption that many of the positive (and negative) impacts of migration are felt at the local level and the economic effects of migration depend on local economic contexts. By that logic, it follows that having different policies for different areas of the UK should bring economic benefits by allowing a better match between economic needs and policy design.
For similar reasons, leaders of the devolved Nations of the UK have been favourable to regional visas. For Nicola Sturgeon, attracting a higher number of immigrants offers an answer to the problem of population decline, which is likely to be a significant drag on Scottish economic growth. It isn't hard to envisage leaders of some of our English regions, such as Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, following suit, should such a system ever be introduced.
There is a superficial logic to these arguments. Surely if government encourages highly skilled newcomers to settle in left-behind regions, it is a win-win? Well, not so fast. There are three reasons why a regionally differentiated system might be difficult to achieve in practice.
First, there is the question of how regional variation would be determined. Where migrants end up would either have to be determined from above, by Whitehall, or by regions themselves, most likely through a process of negotiation with the Home Office. Both models would be problematic. The first would likely involve Soviet-levels of centralised planning (it is hard enough to justify the optimal level/ type of migration for the country, let alone a single region). The latter would lead to an unseemly bidding war between different parts of the country - a process that would, if anything, exacerbate the toxicity of the immigration debate, rather than taking the heat out of it. For example, one might find that it was in precisely those areas of the country already most open to immigration (such as London) that would be most keen to take advantage of a bidding system, whereas the most 'left-behind' areas would be most hostile.
Second, there is the question of how such a policy would be enforced. While the visa rules could make it illegal for migrants to work outside their designated region (and for employers to hire them), it would in practice be difficult to stop people applying to migrate to one region, but then living (and/ or working illegally) in another.
Third, there are solid reasons to be sceptical about whether a regional immigration system would, in fact, lead to the economic gains that have been suggested. Regions are not homogenous. For example, in the North West, major cities like Manchester have growing populations and low unemployment, while the surrounding towns, like Stockport, Bury and Rochdale, have declining populations and higher levels of deprivation. Thus a regionally differentiated immigration system would not necessarily lead to migrants working and settling in 'left-behind' areas, but instead might simply exacerbate the divide between cities and towns. Moreover, regionalising the visa system would increase its complexity, increasing the administrative burden on employers, particularly those with offices in more than one region. It is noteworthy that the independent Migration Advisory Committee has repeatedly rejected the case for a regionally differentiated system.
There is no doubt that the problem of regional inequalities in Britain today is real and it is certainly true that immigration impacts different parts of the UK in different ways. But unless the UK becomes a more federalised country, similar to Australia or Canada, it is difficult to see how regional visas can be practically made to work.