Guildford: As Brexit negotiations continue, what do people really mean by ‘control’?

Guildford, a Surrey town of about 140,000 people was the 39th stop for the national conversation.  Guildford is a fairly prosperous place, with unemployment around half of the national average, and a growing population, which rose by 7,500 (almost 6%) between the 2001 and 2011 census. This was reflected in how pragmatic support for migrants coming to work in the UK was balanced by concerns about housing and population pressure:

In the jobs I do I can see that there are positives. I work for a care home, so I can see both sides. In terms of recruiting people to do the jobs, I know it can be hard to get local people to do certain jobs that people don’t feel like doing, and there some absolutely lovely people I work with who come from the Philippines… On the other hand I do worry about housing, and the fact that all our green belt, especially where I live right now. They’re building everywhere they can every little morsel of land”.

Control and contribution were the dominant themes of the Guildford group, in common with many national conversation panels elsewhere.  What did more control mean to the Guildford participants? For some, it was primarily about better checks on criminals, with the group as a whole wanting some kind of points-system.

On asylum seekers and refugees, concerns about control and the quality of vetting were balanced by a sense of empathy with those fleeing warzones: the group had a strong consensus that Britain did need to play its part in protecting people who feared for their lives.

All of the participants reported some personal contact with migrants, often at work as colleagues, and socially too. A Polish participant in the group, who had been in the UK for twelve years, largely shared the perspective of other participants on the gains and pressures from migration: it worked well when people came to work, and when they mixed into the local community. Those who did not try to be part of the place they had come to were letting the side down, she felt.

The panel felt that integration generally worked well in Guildford, seeing this as a bit of a contrast to nearby Aldershot and other places around the country.  Population pressures affected school places but several participants saw benefits for children growing up alongside children with different languages and faiths, as long as everybody learnt English too. The growing mix was good for Guildford which could be “a bit of a bubble, white and middle-class”, said one participant.

Guildford voted to Remain in the EU referendum by 56% to 44%. Mostly, it would have been difficult to guess which members of the group had voted each way: most participants voiced similar views of contribution and control, of skills and students.

How would the Guildford panel respond if the Brexit negotiations came down to a ‘trade-off’ between immigration control and the best trade deal with Europe?  The Guildford group said that trade would be their number one priority for the negotiations. Yet it turned out that this did not mean they would keep free movement to get a stronger trade-deal. The general consensus was that common sense meant there would have to be a trade deal in the end. If the EU were to insist on a forced choice, the consensus was that the UK may be better off walking away, and “live with tariffs for a bit if we have to”.They will come back to us”, said another.

The Guildford panel were pragmatic balancers on migration, more interested in controls on entry than ‘control’ to reduce numbers significantly. Yet the trade-off case proved unpersuasive to a mixed citizens’ panel in a Remain voting town, even though they wanted to put the economy first. It is possible that views may change as the negotiations continue – but the conclusion of the Guildford citizens may suggest that politicians who believe the ‘trade-off’ is a crucial policy choice would need to focus more on how to strike the right balances on both sides.

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