Who do we think we are? A personal reflection on the immigration debate.

Catherine Staite, Director, INLOGOV

This week Teresa May has argued that immigrants bring no benefits to our country – just problems. Its not unusual for politicians to assert things which fly in the face of the evidence but it is unusual to hear something presented as fact which is so demonstrably untrue. Birmingham has provided a home for many different waves of immigrants over the last century and they have helped to create a diverse and vibrant city. Migration is an issue, like many others today, where prejudice trumps evidence.

The latest mass movement of refugees from Syria, Iraq and parts of Africa – fleeing unspeakable violence and oppression – has brought the issue of migration into sharp focus. The sight of so many traumatised people and so many drowned children as well as the terrible stories of cruelty, as a result of which enormously dangerous journeys became the only possible course of action, has made it hard for xenophobes to maintain a fictional narrative in which migrants are opportunists, pootling about the world in search of generous welfare benefits.

Each episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ highlights both the rich diversity of our heritage and the, sometimes astonishing, parallels between previous episodes from history and the current mass movements of people. The programme illustrates the impact of the major upheavals of history through the small stories, the unsung heroism and heartbreaking tragedies of its subjects’ ancestors. It humanizes history.

Until recently, we might have thought that systematic brutality and persecution in the developed world were things of the past. We might have flattered ourselves that, with all the benefits of instant communication and our ability to mobilise resources to respond to emergencies, we would never see such suffering in Europe again – but we are. As was often the case in the past, many of our politicians have turned a cold and indifferent face to that suffering or used it to drive fear. They have been more interested in maintaining their own political careers than in ensuring the safety and well being of their fellow human beings. They have also been wilfully blind to the evidence of the opportunities and benefits that migrants bring, focusing instead on the costs and the risks.

Will a successor programme, in a hundred years time, tell some British national treasure the story of her ancestors, illustrated by a film of defenseless women and children being attacked by pepper spray, through a metal fence, in Europe in 2015? Will that person weep, as so many subjects of the programme do now, when they contemplate so much suffering? What will they think of us, that we allowed it to happen?

Evidence of the benefits of migration include Boris Johnson, who is descended from George III, a German and also has Turkish ancestry. He seems to be making a contribution to public life. Michael Portillo’s family fled oppression in Spain. Say what you like about his politics, he presents a great railway travelogue. Derek Jacobi’s family were Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in France in the 17th century and bringing their skills as weavers to the English economy. Now we enjoy his skills as an actor. Jane Seymour’s Polish Jewish family suffered in the Warsaw ghetto in the same way that people are suffering now in Homs and Aleppo. We have all those people in our national life today because, at some point, Britain gave their ancestors a home.

However, some might argue that politicians are right to worry about the consequences of migration when you think of the heritage of one recent subject of the programme, Frank Gardiner – so quintessentially English – who discovered that his ancestor had arrived without the proper documents, subverted the local culture by making everyone speak his language and had taken a job previously held by a local. Perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule. He was William the Conqueror.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Fracking: the latest challenge in the Tory heartlands

Martin  Stott

The hot days of July finally saw the debates around the implications of ‘fracking’ of unconventional hydro-carbons in the UK reach out and grab the attention of the national media. As Tory grandee Lord Howell called for the process to be focussed on the ‘desolate North’ (he corrected the initial impression that he was referring to the North East by saying that he really meant the North West) and  Energy Minister Michael Fallon was reported in the Mail on Sunday as warning that fracking was likely to face fierce resistance from the middle classes in Conservative heartlands, as if to prove his point dozens of protesters were arrested at an exploratory drilling site near the village of Balcombe in West Sussex.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking – the process of drilling and then injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to  fracture shale rocks to release natural gas, has caused a revolution in energy policy in the USA where gas prices have dropped dramatically as gas from fracking particularly in North Dakota, and more controversially Pennsylvania, has come on stream. Coal has suddenly seemed a dirty and expensive option and as a consequence carbon emissions from the world’s biggest economy have dropped significantly.

Can the trick be repeated in the UK? The Coalition Government is betting the farm –  quite a  few farms actually – that it can. Chancellor George Osborne announced in this year’s Budget that fracking companies would receive tax allowances for developing gas fields and would be able to offset expenditure on exploration against tax for ten years.The next tax avoidance scandal perhaps. Best known and a pioneer in the field is Cuadrilla (referred to by some opponents as ‘Godzilla’) whose explorations in Lancashire have amongst other things led to a couple of minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May 2011. But there are quite a few other companies across the country as the official estimate for UK reserves is 37 trillion cubic metres of shale gas in the north of England and geologists have yet to quantify reserves in the south.

But it is Balcombe in rural West Sussex which is becoming the test bed for what this means for energy experts, planners, campaigners and politicians. Campaign group Don’t Frack with the Fylde certainly raised the issues and those earthquakes, 1.5 and 2.3 in magnitude respectively, shook confidence in the safety of the technology (let’s face it: who notices in North Dakota where the  nearest house is 60 miles away?) but the opposition in southern England is having a greater impact on politicians and opinion formers. The Mail on Sunday’s  report of Sevenoaks MP Michael Fallon’s private briefing on fracking reported him as saying of potential well-heeled protesters ‘We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive.’ He admitted that exploratory drilling was likely to spread the length and breadth of southern England saying ‘The second area [after the North West] being studied is the Weald. It’s from Dorset all the way along through Hampshire, Sussex… all the way a bit into Surrey and even into my own county of Kent.’

This focus on the lusher parts of the South East which has started at Balcombe is going to be a real concern for Conservative strategists. The ‘Noting Hill set’ has repeatedly been accused of ignoring its rural base as proposals ranging from the sell-off of forests, to wind farm policies, changes in planning laws, opposition to which has been championed by the Daily Telegraph, and the HS2 rail route through the Chilterns have all been seen as a slap in the face for this rural base, many of whom have gravitated towards UKIP. But the Greens too have a presence in the South East, with their charismatic MP Caroline Lucas representing a Sussex seat, an MEP for the region and their only council, Brighton and Hove, only a few miles away.

Meanwhile up in Whitehall, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been ruminating on what to do about the planning and land use implications of promoting the fracking revolution and on 19 July it spoke,  issuing guidance  to local planning authorities. The guidance stresses that fracking could be a vital source of energy, saying ‘Mineral extraction is essential to local and national economies… minerals planning authorities should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction including to the economy when determining planning applications.’ It goes on to explicitly exclude any attempts by planning authorities to trade off fracking with renewable developments saying, ‘Mineral planning authorities should not consider  demand for or consider alternatives to oil and gas resources when  determining planning applications.’ Because of the scale and strategic nature of minerals planning applications these have remained a planning function of county councils, still Tory controlled in southern England.

It  remains to be seen if DCLG will allow a level of discretion in determining these applications by county planning authorities which could well limit or even stop fracking in its tracks in the south, or whether  as would be possible using potential secondary legislation  under the Growth and Infrastructure Act, it could take applications for  fracking for shale gas  out of the hands of county councils and instead have them decided by the Secretary of State as  part of the regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. On the one hand it could bow to Tory pressure in the shires and allow all the developments to happen ‘up north’ by default as counties refuse most if not all applications. On the other, it may decide to take the risk, strip counties of their power and pull shale gas development permissions back into Whitehall. Only time, and a bit of local politics in the home counties, will tell.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government. He is National Policy Adviser on minerals planning for the Royal Town Planning Institute.