The speed of cultural change

  • 27 November 2013
  • From the section UK
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The pace of immigration in Boston, Lincolnshire has left locals feeling disconcerted, but the town must prepare for more new arrivals.

Boston is an ancient English port and market town in the flatlands of Lincolnshire. But it is a town transformed by rapid and significant immigration from Eastern Europe. Where once there would have been the butcher, the baker and, quite possibly, the candlestick-maker, the High Street is now filled with Baltic supermarkets, Polish delis and Lithuanian off-licences.

As you walk through the old streets, you hear foreign voices - mothers pushing their children to nursery, farm-workers heading home after a day in the fields - and this rapid cultural change has made the town feel uneasy.

Police admit they "had their head in the sand" when considering the impact immigration would have on Boston.

They admit they were too slow to spot the risks and now conduct regular community tension assessments. Police staff scan Twitter and Facebook and will intervene to stop rumours and misinformation spreading.

It was, though, the speed of change that locals found disconcerting. In 2001 virtually everyone in Boston was white British. Ten years later it was just 84% - a dramatic cultural shift that saw tensions spill over into protest.

Twelve months ago, 300 people gathered in central Boston to voice concerns at the impact immigration was having on their town. For some, it was economic - they blamed foreign migrants for the shortage of jobs and stretched public services following the financial crash. For others, it was cultural - they felt the town they knew and loved had been taken away from them.

New arrivals

There are clear lessons for the authorities considering how they should respond to the potential arrival of large numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians. Public agencies now meet regularly to consider the impact of migration on the community cohesion of the town.

At one local school, two-thirds of pupils are now from migrant households. Exam results are excellent here and it's seen as a model of good practice. But the prospect of yet more immigration without extra resources is a concern.

However, some local farmers and businessmen have a different view of how immigration has affected Boston. Before the East European influx, the town was already facing significant economic challenges. Many young people were leaving the area, the town was becoming older and poorer.

The arrival of keen, young workers helped some businesses to expand and the farmers' union has complained that local people are often reluctant even to apply for low paid manual jobs.

But Boston is exceptional. Although Eastern European immigration has touched almost every community in the United Kingdom, the impact has rarely been as dramatic as in this corner of the Fens. Nevertheless, the message from the town is that people must prepare for new arrivals, monitor their impact if they do come, and look for ways to deal with the unease that goes with rapid cultural change.