East Midlands council leaders voice migrant concerns

John Hess
Political editor, East Midlands

image captionAn exhibition at the University of Leicester shows contrasting images of migration

At the University of Leicester, there's been a remarkable exhibition of photographs charting the impact of immigration on Britain and the city itself.

Entitled 100 Stories of Migration, some of the images are positive and celebratory. There's a picture of a smiling young mother and her child from Somalia on the beach at Brighton.

Most images though are menacing and hostile, reflecting the UK and the Midlands' often contradictory response to migrants.

Some show National Front marches in the 1970s and a landlady's window notice saying in stark terms: "No coloureds".

"What we wanted to do was to challenge people," curator Sarah Plumb told me.

"It's about asking them to question some of their negative stereotypes that are presented around migrants, often in the mainstream media."

image captionA string of Polish delis have sprung up on Leicester's Hinckley Road

Screened on the staircase is the 1968 Birmingham speech of Enoch Powell. His anti-immigration "Rivers of Blood" warning to West Midlands Conservatives still casts a long political shadow.

Prof Martin Halliwell, deputy pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Leicester, has been building links with university colleagues in Gujarat in west India. But UK political sensitivities over migrants is clouding attempts at deeper exchanges.

"The government's tightening of visas for migrants from Eastern Europe has affected us dramatically and detrimentally, especially in South Asia," he said.

"We are seeing a drying up of the flow of students, which is vital for the life of our universities."

On Leicester's Hinckley Road, the Polish delis reflect the arrival of new migrants.

In excess of 45,000 migrants have settled in the East Midlands since 2011 alone. That's the estimate in findings compiled for the BBC by researchers at Oxford University.

According to new figures from the Office of National Statistics, net annual migration to the UK last year was under 300,000, with the largest group coming from Poland.

The East Midlands parliamentary constituencies with the biggest migrants are Boston and Skegness in Lincolnshire, with 9,500, and Nottingham East with just over 8,000.

image captionThe region's agricultural sector, particularly in Lincolnshire, relies heavily on a migrant workforce according to farmers

It's the food processing industries and farms that have made the East Midlands a particularly popular destination of choice. Only London noticeably attracts more.

"Migrant labour is hugely important to the East Midlands," said Simon Fisher, of the National Farmers' Union in Lincolnshire.

"They offer us the labour flexibility for picking potatoes and vegetables. Without them, we wouldn't be producing the food we do."

But that influx worries East Midlands council leaders. They commissioned their own research on the knock-on effects, in a report entitled The Impact of International Migration on the East Midlands.

It revealed that up to 448,200 people in the East Midlands were foreign born. That's 10% of the region's population, compared with the UK average of 13.8%.

"Our findings showed there was an economic benefit from migration," said councillor Paul Kenny, leader of Boston Borough Council and chairman of the migration board of East Midlands Councils.

"But we also know from our experience that there are issues for our local communities."

In its report, it presses for

  • Better government data on the migrant population locally
  • More English language lessons for migrants
  • The devolving of Home Office funding to tackle the "pressure of community cohesion"
  • The eradication of modern slavery

"People in the region have got concerns about migration and we need to make sure we address those needs," he added.

"It's about working together in partnership. What we are saying to the future government is that we want the East Midlands to have the right resources and back-up to do the job."

Whatever the response of the political parties and local council leaders in the weeks to come, the voters' concerns over migration are sure to affect the outcome of this general election.

Watch my report on migration on Sunday Politics for the East Midlands with Marie Ashby on BBC One at 11:00 GM on 8 March.