Post Commonwealth Games, twelve years ago now, as the Council was reviewing what we needed to do to maximise benefit from a magnificent games, we spent a bit of time analysing the Manchester brand. Now this was not some advertising or PR activity, but an attempt to understand what Manchester is, and what distinguishes it from other places.
One of the key conclusions was that Manchester is open and inclusive and that we welcome anybody from anywhere that wants to make a contribution to the life and well-being of the city. That is part of what made Manchester great in the nineteenth century and what has helped us build a new 21C economy over the last two decades. Up until the late nineties, Manchester was a city that was emptying out, losing population year-on-year, with consequent issues of empty homes, empty shops and empty schools. From the census in 2001 to the census in 2011, our economy grew and our population grew by 19%, making us the fastest growing city in the country.
Where did these people come from? People having babies - live births exceeded deaths over that period. From elsewhere in the UK - people like me, although I migrated here thirty five years ago. People from all over the world - immigrants.
International migrants are not all the same and I want to talk about three categories. Firstly refugees and asylum seekers. These are by far the smallest number of immigrants to the city. The vast majority of that relatively small number are genuine and we couldn't call ourselves a civilised city if we weren't prepared to provide refuge to some of the millions of people fleeing persecution, atrocities and disasters around the world. We could do it better and I really don't understand why we don't allow refugees to work whilst they are awaiting decisions on their status.
The second group I want to mention are students. Something like 25% of the University of Manchester's students come from overseas. They pay for that privilege and are a big earner for the University and the city. Some of them stay post-graduation and add to the economic and cultural life of the city. Most return home not only as graduates but as ambassadors for the city, many ending up in senior positions in their home country. Making it more difficult for overseas students to study in this country is madness.
Lastly I want to talk about economic migrants. Interestingly the biggest source of economic migrants over the last couple of years has been from Spain, but people do come from all over the world, making us the most diverse city in the country after London. They come to work, to start businesses, to contribute to our economy and they are net contributors. They don't in general take jobs from British workers - they help us create more jobs, more businesses, which is why as we come out of the worst recession any of us can remember, even though our population has grown, we have less people in the city in receipt of out-of-work benefits than we did before the recession.
And if the economic contribution is positive, so is the social. After decades of closing schools, we now have the problem we can't open them fast enough. We have gone from areas of low/no-demand housing and market failure, to a housing shortage. Empty shops in our district centres are almost a thing of the past. Harpurhey, supposedly our most deprived district centre, is 100% full. Children of very aspiring immigrants have helped drive up standards in our schools. The City Council's tax base has gone up every year. Not enough to compensate for government cuts, but it helps. Growth does cause problems but problems that are very much preferable to the problems of decline.
For over two centuries, immigrants have been almost entirely positive for Manchester. There is however a real issue around benefits. Our welfare state was set up as a contributory system. You work and you put in so that when you're ill or old or lose your job, you can take out. Most immigrants come here to work. Very few try and claim benefits but I think that there is a legitimate argument that "few" should be "none". If there is a problem let's deal with it but not generalise it to all immigrants because I am in no doubt that the current, restrictive immigration policies are hurting the economy of the city and the country.