From ‘Venice of the Fens’ to magnet for eastern European workers
Crop-picking and food plants have lured migrants to stay in the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech, where a third of residents are from outsidethe UK
Wisbech-born jobseeker Natasha Wright (20) was handing out her CV: “I do feel that it has made it more difficult for me to get a job ,” she says. Photograph: Philip Mynott
Immigration features highly among concerns of Wisbech locals – 80 per cent of those who responded to a survey by Barclay put it as their highest priority. Photograph: Philip Mynott
In the 17th century, the people of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire became known as “the Fen Tigers” because of their bitter opposition to the draining of the marshes that surrounded them. In time, the drainage made the town wealthy.
Fine, mostly Georgian, houses built by rich traders today stand on both sides of the river Nene from the days a century later when Wisbech was “the Venice of the Fens”, an inland port that boomed from exporting crops grown on the newly available lands.
In the last decade, Wisbech has seen change on a scale to match those days, following the arrival of thousands of eastern Europeans to work on local farms and in factories in the years after European Union expansion in 2004.
Seasonal labour is nothing new for the Fens. In fact, it has been a feature of life for centuries. In decades past, travellers and gypsies, students and the poor from London came during harvest time. But, afterwards, they left. This time, arrivals have stayed.
The pace of change has discomfited many locals. Some object they cannot get work, or must accept lower wages. Others simply object to foreigners. Many say Wisbech should get more help.
National decisions, or the lack of them, have led to increased immigration, argues local Conservative MP Steve Barclay, but it is local communities that struggle with the consequences, including pressure on school places or on the health service.
In 1997, Tony Blair’s first year in power, net immigration to Britain stood at 48,000. Within a year it had jumped by 100,000. Since then, four million people have come, while the number continues to rise by 150,000 a year, despite flailing attempts by Conservatives to reduce it.
Since 2004, 1.5 million eastern Europeans moved to Britain: a million have stayed. Poles fill one-fifth of all “packers, bottlers, canners” jobs, or nearly one in six of those in food-processing plants, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which campaigns against poverty and for social change.
Given trends, one-fifth of the population in Britain will be foreign-born by 2020. A majority living in major cities, such as London, Birmingham and Leicester, will be non-white by then, says author David Goodhart in a new book, The British Dream.
For many, the influx has made Britain more vibrant and exciting; a vastly superior place to live compared with the often stultifying 1950s and 1960s. However, such opinions tend to be held by those who have enjoyed its benefits, rather than by those who believe they have lost out.
Early on a Monday morning in Market Street, as the town slowly kicks into life, Wisbech’s changing face is visible. Eastern European accents match, if not outnumber, those of locals. One-third of the population is believed to be foreign. So, too, are nearly half of all early schoolgoers.
In the 30,000-strong town, which lies an hour away from thriving Cambridge, there are many such as 20-year-old Natasha Wright, speaking as she hands out CVs to local shopkeepers, who feel short-changed. “Yes, I do feel that it has made it more difficult for me to get a job ,” Wright, accompanied by her grandmother, Dot Turton, told The Irish Times. “I don’t want a life on benefits.” Ironically, the shop she had entered is run by a Polish couple, Adam Markiewicz and Justyna Wanska, who came to Wisbech nine years ago, first working for an agency before spending seven years in a local meat processors. The shop is one of many opened by immigrants in recent years in a town where little else is starting up.
“We have never claimed a penny from anybody since we came here, not a penny,” says Markiewicz, who works “up to 14 hours” a day as he and his partner try to get their Coffee & Square bakery and coffee shop off the ground. Irked by the “benefit cheat” representation so common in much of the British press, Markiewicz, who is preparing to rent out a bedroom in their house to make ends meet, notes that one Englishman came to view, telling them “that the council would pay his rent”.
“We’re happy here. We bought a house,” says Wanska. “It is tough here, it is not easy. But life in Poland was harder. We both lived with our parents there because we could not afford to live together. So we are staying here. We want to be part of this society.”