It is easy to feel gloomy about the fate of London after Brexit. Since the referendum result was declared, the capital’s residents have anxiously debated what will happen when the flow of European workers to their city is suddenly restricted: who will make their coffee, programme their software, build their houses and staff their hospitals?
It is true that with just under a million EU residents, London potentially has the most to lose from the end to free movement which is almost certain to accompany the split from Brussels.
The capital is home to 13 per cent of the UK’s population but a third of its EU citizens. As the government has increased visa curbs on migrants from outside Europe, London’s employers have become ever more reliant on the unlimited supply of workers from the continent.
Meanwhile, Londoners are on average far more pro-migration and pro-Remain than their fellow Britons, so are likely to feel the loss of diversity more keenly. But amongst the angst, one crucial point may be forgotten: that the capital is actually much better placed to survive a restrictive new immigration regime than other parts of the country.
In fact, Londoners should be reassured that for all types of European migrants — workers, spouses, and students — the capital may remain a far easier place than the regions to work and settle.
We know this because a leaked Home Office plan for post-Brexit immigration has provided some insight into the hurdles that EU migrants will face in future.
To qualify for a work permit, skilled workers from the continent will probably have to earn above a fixed salary threshold. To bring a foreign spouse into the UK, they will definitely have to prove an income high enough to support them. So for both employment and family unification, being in London — where wages are nearly a third higher than the national average — is likely to be a significant advantage.
Universities based in the capital should also find it easier to attract EU students than institutions across the rest of the country. This is partly due to the quality of London’s academic centres: it has three of the UK’s top universities — Imperial College, University College London and the London School of Economics. Early indications about the effect of Brexit on student numbers suggest that while applications from EU students to British universities fell by about 5 per cent on average in the year following the referendum, at Imperial, EU applications rose by 5 per cent. The falling value of the pound has also made London better value as a study destination compared with other international capitals.
The loss of lower-skilled EU workers will have the most impact on Londoners’ day-to-day lifestyle
This is not to say that the transition will be easy. Richard Brown, director of research at the Centre for London think-tank, makes clear that freedom of movement is as much about a welcoming, international culture as it is about hard numbers of migrants and the need to fill skills gaps. He fears that any new system in which the flow of Europeans is regulated or “policed” — however lightly — will change the way both Londoners and visitors feel about the capital’s long-established cosmopolitan nature.
Meanwhile, London businesses and lobby groups have expressed understandable concerns about an under-supply of lower-skilled EU workers who would not meet income thresholds if these are imposed. It is the loss of these workers — rather than high-flying financiers — which will have the most impact on Londoners’ day-to-day lifestyles.
Businesses argue that current record employment levels mean there are simply not enough Britons available to perform these roles. Their answer is that the government should create an array of exceptional visas for Europeans working in key low-paid sectors, from technology start-ups to care homes, coffee shops and construction sites.
Even in recruiting for these jobs, London has advantages over the rest of the country. Young foreign workers wanting to improve their English during a short spell in Britain may well prefer a stint in an exciting capital city to one in a rural outpost. Potential migrants can also be confident that London, as a Remain stronghold, is more likely to embrace them than other regions which voted for Brexit.
Overall, the real cause for anxiety is not London’s labour shortage but that of the UK’s industrial heartlands, which tend to be wary of migrants but could struggle to meet the need for skills in a newly “independent” UK. By contrast, the capital might grieve for its lost ties to the union, but at least it is dynamic enough to keep drawing in the talented foreigners that it both wants and needs.