8th December 2023 – (Nottingham) The recent bankruptcy declaration by Nottingham City Council sent shockwaves throughout England’s local authorities. As the largest local council to effectively declare insolvency in decades, Nottingham’s dire financial situation serves as a stark warning to councils across the country. However, it also highlights significant concerns for Hong Kong migrants who chose England as their new home under the British National (Overseas) visa scheme.
When the UK government introduced the BN(O) visa in 2021 in response to Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy, many Hongkongers saw it as a lifeline. The scheme offered a pathway to UK citizenship, a chance to escape political oppression and build a better future in a democratic society. Two years on, nearly 200,000 Hongkongers have arrived, ready to contribute their skills, experience and work ethic to British communities.
Yet the bankruptcy of councils like Nottingham City reveals the challenging reality these migrants now face. English local authorities oversee critical community services, from social care to waste collection, libraries and parks. With councils declaring effective bankruptcy at an unprecedented rate, the very foundations of local governance seem at risk. The financial contagion may spread, threatening disruption to services Hong Kong arrivals depended upon as they struggled to establish new lives.
Already, many Hong Kong migrants were finding life difficult in the UK. A recent survey showed only 50% of working-age BN(O) visa holders had secured employment. 99% still planned to remain in the UK, committed to making it work. However, barriers like securing recognition for qualifications and improving English skills hindered job-seeking for many. Some faced discrimination and exploitation at work, toiling long hours in low-paying jobs that failed to utilise their abilities.
Financial pressures have also mounted. 40% said their finances had deteriorated since arriving. High living costs were identified as a key factor, with 18.5% struggling to cover basic expenses. Having left Hong Kong hastily as the political climate deteriorated, some lacked sufficient savings or resources. Draining mandatory pension funds was impossible, as the Hong Kong government refused withdrawals. While determined to succeed, adjusted expectations were often disappointed.
Against this backdrop, the bankruptcy of local councils spells further uncertainty. If services are reduced due to lack of funds, Hong Kong migrants’ challenges integrating and achieving stability will intensify. Social care provision is already overstretched in many areas, with vulnerable residents facing long waiting lists for essential support. As demand continues rising amidst ageing populations and cuts, councils overseeing areas with high shares of Hong Kong arrivals may soon reach breaking point.
Risks extend into other spheres critical to migrants’ welfare. Council-run health services, migrant support initiatives and subsidized housing/homelessness prevention schemes are vulnerable. English language programs, adult education and skills retraining opportunities could also decline just as newcomers need them most. Even parks, sports and cultural centers providing community connection risk cutbacks and closures.
The impact reaches the next generation too. Schools face soaring costs, while council education departments administer student welfare programs, free school meals and support for non-native English speakers. Cuts here could seriously hamper children’s progress, setting back migrants’ hopes for their futures.
With BN(O) migrants largely concentrated around major urban centers like London, Manchester and Birmingham, the bankruptcy contagion in England’s councils presents a perfect storm. It is these large, ethnically diverse metropolitan areas that typically rely most heavily on central government grants to fund services. After a decade of austerity cuts, reserves are largely depleted. Yet demand has surged with rising homelessness, unemployment and inequality in the wake of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis.
Large infrastructure budgets for transport, housing and regeneration have also been raided repeatedly to plug urgent funding gaps in social care. This further degrades the urban environment for residents. As councils teeter on the brink, the impact on recent arrivals from Hong Kong could be immense.
So what solutions can be implemented to avoid an imminent crisis and protect Hong Kong migrants who sought stability and opportunity in the UK?
Firstly, the UK government must take action to alleviate the financial pressure faced by local authorities. Birmingham City Council has already been placed under government control to rectify its dire finances. However, a systematic funding injection is essential to forestall contagion. The recent Autumn Statement offered no new money for councils, prompting widespread concern.
Central government grants must now rise to realistic levels, addressing the yawning chasm between council responsibilities and available resources. Austerity cannot continue cutting services to the bone. And additional funds should be allocated to major urban centers bearing the brunt of arrivals from Hong Kong.
Councils also need greater powers to raise revenue themselves. Council tax increases are inevitable, but opportunities exist to implement tourist taxes, airport levies or local sales taxes. Debt restructuring and staggered deficit repayment programs will also assist overstretched authorities.
Operationally, trimming bureaucratic inefficiencies, rationalizing management and collaborating across councils to share resources can optimize strained budgets. Digital transformation and innovative public-private financing models will further bolster sustainability. But these efficiency drives must not camouflage the need for increased government funding.
Secondly, tailored support programs for Hong Kong migrants must expand through joined-up central and local government efforts. Initiatives like information guides, mental health services and career coaching have assisted many new arrivals. However, awareness remains limited. Multilingual publicity campaigns for support programs should feature across national and council-level channels.
Meanwhile, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities should work with urban councils to address Hongkongers’ specific integration challenges. Local authorities are well-placed to collaborate with community groups and tailor responses. Everything from employment partnerships and skills retraining to targeted mental health outreach and youth mentoring schemes can aid transition. But sufficient funding is imperative, including from Whitehall.
Longer-term, the U.K. must recognise Hong Kong arrivals as an asset, not a burden. Their skills, experience and diversity strengthen British society. However, realising their potential requires fulfilling the promises that drew them from Hong Kong. Slashing local services and neglecting support structures betrays their trust in the UK’s values. It also risks fuelling grave instability if disenfranchisement and alienation grow.
The bankruptcy contagion creeping through England’s councils is a crisis demanding urgent action. For Hong Kong migrants who hoped a new life here would end their fears, its implications are severe. The U.K. government must intervene to remedy councils’ financial woes before the most vulnerable communities pay the price. Honoring the commitments Britain made to Hongkongers will strengthen society as a whole. However, abandoning them when hardship hits would signal how shallow those promises were.