Around 20 per cent of Southampton’s residents were born abroad – making it a perfect place to gauge the pros and cons of being an immigration nation.
In this port city a decade ago there lived just a few hundred Polish immigrants. Now there are more than 8,000 here, along with their restaurants, grocers, butchers and insurance brokers.
Southampton has been absorbing immigrants ever since the Huguenots fled to the city in the 17th century, and now about a fifth of the residents here were born outside the UK.
While some are relaxed about this, others complain of too many immigrants – one person telling me: “The floodgates are open.”
At St Mark’s primary school 49 languages are spoken by the pupils – among them two types of Zulu and Punjabi.
The school holds Polish coffee mornings to guide parents through their children’s curriculum, while upstairs Miss Kay from Lithuania takes a reception class.
A decade ago the school was classified as 86 per cent white English. Now that figure is 41 per cent. Headteacher Anne Steele-Arnett is positive about the benefits for the children: “This is their norm, this is what they’re growing up with and this will be their strength. They will be able to mix, they will be able to integrate.”
But the pressure on public services is evident. A thousand more babies are being born in the city each year than a decade ago. Another secondary school may have to be built.
Council leader Richard Williams admits that at a time of austerity, with cuts in local authority grants, the pressure of serving a growing migrant population can only increase: “We can’t not provide services if they’re from a different ethnic background – if they have need, then we will accommodate them – we have to.”
But he told me that central government will have to become “a bit more realistic” about dealing with these things.
Yet in this growing city there is also a high demand for migrant workers to fill jobs.
Sylwia Fafara, 47, arrived in Southampton from Kielce in Poland seven years ago. She says she has never claimed any benefits since arriving in the UK, but her first job looking after dementia patients in a care home was too tough for locals.
“I used to work night shifts for two years – and what I noticed is a lot of young English people who came to work with me, resigned after one or two days – the night shifts were too hard,” she told me.
Figures do suggest that, nationally, working-age migrants are less dependent on benefits than their British counterparts.
From Southampton’s Sikh community at the recent Vaisakhi festival we heard mixed views on the new migrants. While some said they were glad that new arrivals hadn’t had the same reaction they had to deal with in the 1950s, others voiced fears about the lack of jobs:
“The English government asked the Sikhs to come and do the dirty work. We’ve done that. We’re English Sikhs now – nothing against the migrants, but where’s the work?”
But it was housing that proved one of the most emotive aspects of this debate. In the Salisbury pub on Southampton’s Shirley Road, they had plenty to say on this subject. One local woman described her anger that her brother, she claimed, had been on the council housing waiting list for five years yet a Polish woman apparently got housed before him. “We should have priority over outsiders she says.”
There is great demand for social housing here: eight years ago there were 4,000 on the waiting list, now there are 14,000. But council leader Richard Williams, says the bias is towards locals and most migrants live in private rented accommodation.
Mr Williams says the council is consciously aiming to encourage integration. He tells me of a recent council document explaining benefit changes which the council chose to publish in English only:
“We want people to speak English, we want them to use English in business and in communications in schools or the high street. By focussing on English, that’s a way of integrating people from different ethnic backgrounds in Southampton.”
And beyond the pressures, this is a city imbued with a youthful diversity many local people proudly acclaim – as well as a new increasingly Slavic-sounding workforce upon which many businesses thrive.
A city of 230,000 with minimal ethnic tensions, we were told.
Understandably some are unsettled by the recent pace of change witnessed here and apprehensive of the challenges which lie ahead.