Thursday, 11 September 2014

Geography, Difference and the Question of Scale

By Helen Packwood and Professor Allan Findlay FRSGS. This article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the RSGS's magazine, The Geographer.

Population growth in Scotland has continued to increase over the past decade and looks likely to meet the Scottish Government’s official population target, which is to match average European (EU15) growth from 2007 to 2017. Population growth has long been viewed as a key priority for the devolved Scottish Government, and at the core of its strategy for economic growth in Scotland.

The latest population growth in Scotland is slightly lower than the EU15 average; however, for most of the period since 2007 it has exceeded this level. Scotland’s population has grown by 3% since 2006-7, whereas the average across the EU15 countries has been 2%. Therefore Scotland seems on track to meet its population target.

Immigration plays an important role in maintaining this population growth in Scotland, and the Scottish Government sees continued population inflows as central to maintaining this demographic growth. However, Scotland still has a relatively small immigrant population (c7% of usual residents) compared with other European (EU27) nations.

Figure 1 reveals the geography of international migration to Scotland. Poland emerges as the most common non-UK country of birth in Scotland, despite being ranked 18th in 2001. As the most populous of the ‘Accession 8’ countries, Poland has been the biggest sender of East-Central European migrants since the enlargement of the European Union in 2004. Polish migrants now form 15% of all foreign-born residents living in Scotland.

In contrast to crude binary comparisons between England and Scotland, this article builds on the work of McCollum et al (CPC Briefing Paper 10 2013) and argues that a more pertinent comparison is to consider how Scotland compares with English regions. Figure 2 reveals the quantity and origins of foreign-born residents in the English regions and in Scotland. It is quickly apparent that, in terms of ‘distinctiveness’, the outlier is not Scotland but London.


The proportion of non- UK born residents in Scotland is similar to the English regions, with the notable exception of London.  By asking respondents, “If you were not born in the United Kingdom, when did you most recently arrive to live here?”, the 2011 Census gives an interesting snapshot of how long migrants have been resident in the UK. Scotland has a larger proportion of recent international migrants than any of the English regions. There is a varied distribution of recent migrants to the UK, with 22% of Scotland’s migrants arriving within the last two years (before the 2011 census); in contrast, the West Midlands, London, and the South-East of England have seen a smaller proportion of recent migrants.

A further 22% of international migrants in Scotland arrived within less than five years prior to the 2011 census; again this marks a distinction with migration to other parts of the UK. Based on this data, migration to Scotland appears to be relatively transient, with migrants settling for shorter periods than in England. Analysis of the age of migrants on arrival in the UK reveals an interesting picture of the nature of new migrants. These figures point to where young migrant families are arriving in the UK. At 17%, Scotland is among the top three locations for migrants arriving aged 0-4 years old. In contrast, just 9% of London’s foreign-born population arrived aged 0-4 years.

This analysis has important policy implications that impact on the current debate on constitutional change. While it is possible to argue that current UK immigration policy does not serve the interests of the Scottish economy particularly well, given the powerful influence of London in shaping perceptions of the UK’s immigration needs, it is seldom recognised that the same argument is true for other regions of England. Moreover, establishing migration policies suited to the different needs of regional economies is a policy option that has been taken up by some states such as Canada, and is an option open to the Scottish and UK governments regardless of the outcome of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

In examining Scotland alongside regions within England, it is apparent that London has a much more diverse population than anywhere else in England. In fact, London stands in contrast to many areas of the country, particularly geographically ‘peripheral’ regions such as the South-West, the North- East, and Scotland. The ‘London effect’ clearly has a bearing on the UK and English averages in relation to most migration statistics, which underlines the importance of examining the data at a range of scales, rather than defaulting to considering only aggregate Scottish/English data.