By Robert Hardman
They’ve stopped mincing their words in these parts. Even the social workers and the worthiest public sector grandees have given up dancing around one of the great taboos of our age and realise that it needs to be addressed head-on.
Hence there is little talk of ‘multi-culturalism’ here in Boston, the Lincolnshire cabbage capital.Instead, everyone in this handsome old market town simply talks about ‘immigration’ — none more so, it seems, than the immigrants themselves.
For as Britain prepares to open up the workplace and the welfare state to the people of Bulgaria and Romania at the start of next year, none will feel the impact more than all the recent arrivals from Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, who have made Boston the most Eastern European town in Britain.
The population of Boston in Lincolnshire has grown by more than 15 per cent to 65,000 in a decade, most of that increase being from Eastern European countries like Poland
Evidence of the influx of east European immigrants can be seen all around the town. In this picture The Baltic Food Store can be seen next to the Romanian shop and the car parked outside has a Latvian number plate
Ziedonis Barbaks, leader of Boston’s substantial Latvian community, points out:
‘The Romanians and Bulgarians will just repeat what happened before. The [employment] agencies and gang-masters will start hiring them, at a lower cost, instead of the Polish and Latvians and Lithuanians. Then what?’
If that happens, Britain could find itself with a new welfare bombshell — supporting all those migrants displaced from the workplace as well as all the indigenous British, who are out of it already.
Some EU newcomers — no one seems to know how many — have already plugged in to the benefits system (as they can after just three months).
Take, for example, the Latvian woman in Boston who has made national news for having ten children and annual welfare receipts of £34,000.
Voice of the people: Rachel Bull spoke out on the BBC's Question Time about her home town of Boston, saying it was at 'breaking point' due to the level of immigration
Immigration: Transitional arrangements in place since 2005, which restrict the rights of 29million Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to live and work in other EU states, will expire soon
She is a rarity, of course, at the extreme end of the spectrum. But many others, for example, claim child benefit for children who do not even live in Britain.
Britain is obliged to pay out under European Union law, and the latest figures (only extracted via a parliamentary question) show that the UK already pays child benefit for more than 40,000 children who aren’t actually here. What might that bill be in a year or two?
‘This country is too soft,’ says Ziedonis, 36, a married father-of-two who works alternate shifts with his wife, Vita, in a Boston flower factory.
‘It’s simply crazy that people can come to this country and start claiming benefits. You should have to work for at least five years before you start taking anything.’
No wonder officialdom is refusing to predict how many people are going to pile onto coaches in Bucharest and Sofia with one-way tickets to Britain.
‘A padlock,’ says Mandy Exley firmly. ‘I’m not kidding. We haven’t got any more jobs.’
Blimey. Mandy is not a finger-wagging emissary from UKIP or a sepia-tinted reactionary. She is the much-respected ‘community cohesion officer’ for the Lincolnshire Community And Voluntary Service.
An Eastern European delicatessen in Boston: Some estimates put the number of immigrants in Boston as high as 10,000 - and that is not including any illegal immigrants who are under the official radar
When community cohesion officers start calling for border controls, it is probably time for government ministers to acknowledge there is a big problem. In recent days, Boston has found itself in the national headlines for two reasons.
First, the latest census figures showed its population has grown by more than 15 per cent to 65,000 in a decade, most of that increase being from Eastern Europe.
That, of course, does not include the legion of migrant workers living five-to-a-room who prefer not to fill in the census forms.
According to a leading (Left-leaning) academic, there are an additional 4,000-6,000 migrants in town.
The council reckons the figure is more like an additional 10,000.
Indeed, the census is so unreliable that the Home Office has just despatched a special population research team.
Shopping local: Latvian Sanda Klavcane, 26, is cheerful as she tends to customers in her food store selling products from her home country
Put another way, if Boston were London, it would be like absorbing (at the very least) an extra 1.3 million people — the entire populations of Glasgow and Edinburgh — in under ten years.
But Boston has also become a national talking point thanks to Bostonian Rachel Bull, who was in the audience at a recent recording of BBC1’s Question Time in Lincolnshire.
She claimed that the town was a ‘foreign country’ at ‘breaking point.’
She was roundly rebuffed by Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University, who was on the panel.
She cited a new council report as proof that immigration was not harming local services (and consequently received some disgusting online abuse for her troubles).
But as far as most Bostonians are concerned, Rachel Bull was spot on. She has subsequently become a (very reluctant) local heroine. So I have come to Boston to see what the situation is really like.
And I am instantly struck by the Baltic influence — from the Polish supermarkets and Latvian delis to the number of women in those thick padded plastic coats beloved of the old Iron Curtain, to the voices on the street.
Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University, rebuffed Boston resident Rachel Bull's comment that the town had become a 'foreign country' on BBC's Question Time
But I am also surprised by the lack of animosity.
True, there is palpable anger among native Bostonians that their town has become a Baltic satellite in next to no time.But it’s not an anger directed at the Eastern Europeans. It’s aimed squarely at the Government and the EU.
Lincolnshire’s vast flatlands have always needed people to pick and pack the vegetables and flowers, which are the bedrock of the local economy.
Traditionally, the work was done by students and by part-time workers brought in from urban areas such as Doncaster and Nottingham.
But in 2004, Britain opened its doors to the new round of EU member nations, while, crucially, not implementing the labour restrictions imposed by other countries such as France and Germany. The result was an influx of large numbers from Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, happy to be paid wages and accept living conditions well below the local norm.
Mark Harper, Conservative MP for Forest of Dean, has said limiting access to free healthcare is key to preventing the NHS becoming an 'international health service' as immigration rates look set to rise
For their part, many locals found they could not compete with newcomers prepared to work longer hours while living in accommodation that verged on squalor. As wage levels came down and local workers either moved elsewhere or fell back on the benefits system, so more and more migrants came in to fill the gaps.
Some have made Britain their home, starting families and bringing over relatives to join them. Others continue to work all the hours they can, living as cheaply as possible and sending money to families back home. And as long as they have paid National Insurance, they can claim the full range of UK benefits, whether they then continue to work or lose their jobs.
After the initial shock to Boston’s education and health sectors from increased numbers, local services have managed to adjust.
For example, the local Park Academy primary school, where two-thirds of children do not have English as a first language, is among the best in the county and says it is ‘100 per cent happy’ with the migration situation.
But, needless to say, there is resentment, particularly as everyone knows that much of officialdom still errs on the side of political correctness. The local police, for example, insist that migration has had no impact on the crime rate. However, a quick scan of the local paper, the Boston Standard, lists 21 criminals convicted at the magistrates’ court, of which two thirds have names such as Zumbrickij and Kazombiase. Most offences are for drink-driving and other motoring offences. British names, it should be noted, still lead the section for assaults.
‘It can’t go on like this — but we need those the migrant workers,’ says local councillor Elliott Fountain. ‘If they went, this town would just tip over. It would be a ghost town.’
He’s an interesting mix. A member of the arch-Eurosceptic English Democrats (a sort of UKIP for the English) and a local businessman, he has set up several business ventures with the newcomers and also owned Boston’s first Polish food shop. He has been a gangmaster —recruiting local labour for seasonal agricultural work — and also owns various properties in the area which he rents out. But he believes Boston is full to bursting. ‘My son’s school hasn’t got lockers,’ he says. ‘They’ve built up to the rafters and there is no room.’
Last year, there were fears that local tensions might spill over into violence when a protest march through the town was planned.
Many locals found they could not compete with newcomers prepared to work longer hours while living in accommodation that verged on squalor, and so feel they are missing out on jobs
In the end, there was a compromise of sorts. Boston Borough Council promised a thorough inquiry into the social impact of immigration while the protesters scaled back their march to a ‘static demonstration’ which passed off without incident.
The recently published report —the one cited by Professor Beard on Question Time — has been hailed by officialdom as a landmark document. Its tone is upbeat. Its conclusion is that Boston has faced a monumental demographic challenge, that it is coping and that a lot of local complaints are unfounded. It points out that Boston has 10,000 migrant workers and 1,200 jobless. Remove the former, and the latter are hardly going to fill the gap.
But it also raises many serious questions far beyond the remit of a borough council. I head for the council offices on West Street — or ‘East Street’ as the locals now call it. The Bombay Brasserie looks like Ye Olde Worlde tearoom in this company. A Romanian shop stands next to a ‘Baltic foodstore’, which is next to an Eastern European beauty parlour, standing next to another ‘Baltic foodstore’. Across the road, is the NV Baltic nightclub. The Latvian bakery does superb pastries.
Mrs Bull spoke for many in her Lincolnshire hometown when she saying on Question Time that facilities are overstretched because of the influx of workers from overseas
Down at the Latvian grocery, Sanda Klavcane, 26, could win a competition for Britain’s smiliest shop assistant. She’s been here for eight years and loves the place, although she admits (in excellent English): ‘It’s very flat — cabbages, cabbages.’
Peter Bedford, leader of the Tory-controlled council, is proud that the town has the lowest number of empty shops in the East Midlands, while other high streets are the usual blend of blanked-out windows and ubiquitous national brands. There was a recent retail vacancy just opposite the town hall when the local Blockbusters went under. It’s now a shiny new Polish supermarket.
Boston has even managed to hang on to its branch of Marks & Spencer, unlike other Lincolnshire towns, including near-neighbour Grantham. I am astonished to learn that Margaret Thatcher’s home town has lost its Marks and Sparks. It’s like the cheese industry leaving Cheddar. But Boston’s branch still stands on the pretty marketplace opposite St Botolph’s Church, the cathedral-sized masterpiece known universally as the Boston Stump.
Tony Blair recently received an award for allowing so many Poles to come and work in Britain. In his prerecorded video message for the audience at Warsaw's National Opera house, in which he said 'As you know, Poland is a country I admire greatly'
Mr Bedford says that the council has worked hard on its social impact report. The leader of the opposition Labour group was appointed to chair the immigration inquiry in order to give it cross-party credibility. However, Mr Bedford is adamant that there must be restrictions on any future arrivals, and acknowledges that the locals have had enough.
‘One of the biggest issues is one of noise,’ he tells me. ‘Boston was always a quiet town and a lot of Eastern Europeans are not, shall we say, used to talking quietly. You walk round town and you hear these loud foreign voices everywhere. You go into the local doctor’s surgery and you have a lot of locals sitting quietly as a loud foreign voice tries to deal with the receptionist. So people think: 'They’re taking over.'"
This week we learned that Polish is now Britain’s second language.
I stand outside the primary school at home time and canvass a cross-section of parents. Most have a smattering of English, smile politely and just say ‘good school’.
As a locally-born father, tyre fitter David Scott, 32, is in a minority. He says he is very happy with the school and that his five-year-old daughter has many Eastern European friends. What concerns him, though, is the next wave of migration. ‘I just feel that things are coming to a head,’ he says.
Come nightfall, I walk around town with Mike Gilbert, the Tory councillor in charge of communities. All the voices we hear, in the space of an hour, are speaking another language.
Mike has spent his life in social services and regards the immigration issue as a symptom of other difficulties, not a problem in itself. For example, he is particularly worried how Britain’s schools fail to prepare youngsters for the world of work and points out how this is different to the upbringing of children in other societies:
"We mollycoddle school-leavers like an endangered species and give them fistfuls of certificates and then wonder why they won’t take factory jobs. Why does this country put its own people on the subs’ bench, let others do the work and create an underclass which corrodes the rest of society?"
The immigration inquiry has done little to diminish local anger.
The Boston Protest Group, which organised last autumn’s demonstration, is planning similar events in neighbouring towns this year.
‘It’s easy to say that immigrants are just doing jobs which the locals are too lazy to do, but that’s not fair,’ says protest leader, Bob McAuley, 65, a retired businessman and recent UKIP recruit. ‘You try raising a family on £6.20 an hour, paying a mortgage and living next door to a house with ten young guys coming and going day and night.’ He says that nearly all the contributors to the council’s immigration report were on the state payroll and thus had a vested interest in not rocking the boat.
‘This situation is not sustainable. And it’s about to get a lot worse.’
As we stand on the street, Bob bumps into two friends who work for the council. They share his views, but say that if I were to use their names for this article, they would be fired.
Bob believes that the best way forward is forthright discussion. While organising protests against immigration, he also sits on the Boston Good Relations Group, along with representatives of the migrant community, such as Ziedonis, whom he likes and respects.
‘We don’t mind the migrants. I blame the damned politicians who have created this problem,’ he says.
It seems, for now, that Boston is coming to terms with its recent social upheavals, even if many locals remain unhappy about the way it has happened.
The problem is what happens if — or when — this generation of migrants find themselves edged out of work, either by newcomers or as the result of an economic downturn.
Will taxpayers be happy to provide a large migrant community with the full range of state benefits — just like the locals they have displaced?
One thing which surprises me is the absence of official information.
The council accepts it does not know the nationalities of those to whom it gives benefits such as housing and council tax support. The Department for Work and Pensions says that, under the previous government, there was no attempt to record the nationality of people receiving benefits, and that it is only starting to catch up.
If the so-called ‘myths’ in this volatile debate are to be addressed, then we will need as much hard data as possible — even it means asking hard questions.
As councillor Mike Gilbert observes, things can move fast round here.
A few years ago, the council elections delivered a shock landslide majority to a group that wanted a bypass for Boston.
‘If it can happen for a bypass, then who says it won’t happen for an issue that inspires much more extreme opinions?’
Rachel Bull challenges Mary Beard on Question Time