Immigration has been a political ‘hot’ topic for the past decade. It was at the heart of the debate on the Brexit referendum and is now a crucial part of negotiations with the EU. Controlling and reducing net migration continues to be one of the Government’s objectives, and, while there has been some disagreement between ministers,1 the UK-EU Future Relationship White Paper2 published in July 2018 restates that Freedom of Movement will end as the UK leaves the EU. Further details on the Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy are expected in the white paper due to be published later this year.2

The most recent data shows a drop in net migration since the referendum, following record levels in 2015 and 2016.4 This is largely attributed to the fall in net migration from the EU, which is at the lowest level since 2013. As this drop has occurred before any migration policy change, it could be seen as a sign that Britain is becoming a less attractive place to live and work, potentially as people anticipate the changes likely to be brought about by Brexit.

Any significant fall in migration is likely to have negative economic impacts across the country. With three-quarters of the non-UK born population living in urban areas, migrants play an even more important role in cities and any change in migration is likely to affect them most (see Box 1).

With the Government having committed to ‘designing a system for all parts of the UK’2, this report looks at the latest trends in migration to cities, the role that international migrants play in cities in England and Wales and the impact that reducing migration is likely to have on local economies. It focuses on migrants from other EU countries as this will be the group most affected by changes to migration policy after Brexit.6

Box 1: Cities will be most affected by changes to migration

All cities in England and Wales, with the exception of Blackpool and Sunderland, have seen an increase in their population in the past decade. Migration has been an important driver of this growth as the majority of cities have seen an increase in their foreign-born population. Projections suggest that some cities may see a decline in population without future migration.

Cities are the go-to place for migrants: in 2011, more than three-quarters of all the foreign-born population lived in cities. This reflects the economic opportunities these places provide. London alone accounts for over 41 per cent of the non-UK-born population living in England and Wales. A similar pattern is identifiable among the EU population: in the same year, more than two-thirds of EU migrants in England and Wales located in cities, with London accounting for more than a third as shown in Figure 1.

As a result, the urban population is more diverse than the rest of the country. In 2011, one in every four citizens in cities was born outside the UK but in the rest of the country, this was one every ten, as shown in Figure 2. Any change to migration numbers will predominantly affect cities.


Figure 1: Share of EU population, by city size, 2011

Source: Census 2011

Figure 2: Population, by country of birth, 2011

Source: Census 2011



  • 1 Elliot, F (2018), “Brexit: Free movement ‘is still on the table’”, The Times, 11th July 2018
  • 2 HM Government (2018), The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
  • 3 HM Government (2018), The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
  • 4 ONS (2018), Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: July 2018.
  • 5 HM Government (2018), The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
  • 6 This report mostly uses data from Census 2011. This means that the data does not include EU migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.
  • 7 Cangiano, A, (2018), The impact of Migration on Population Growth. Oxford: The Migration Observatory.