Grimsby: attitudes to immigration have “everything to do with opportunities”

Grimsby, a seaport town in North Lincolnshire, was the National Conversation’s last visit to Yorkshire and Humberside. Here where we met with stakeholders and local people to discuss migration. The citizens’ panel in Grimsby considered immigration to bring both positive impacts and challenges, although the panel voiced many concerns about migration and felt that negative impacts outweighed what they saw as benefits.

The majority of the panels’ concerns about migration related to loss: of public resources and housing, of jobs, and of identity:

“They’re [migrants are] just coming in and taking our resources. I’ve got to wait until I’m 67 instead of retiring at 60 now to get my pension… so where is my, after working all my life, my little bit of life?”

During the mid 20th century, the town hosted the largest fishing fleet in the world, but Grimsby has now lost the most of the industry that defined it. Although the causes are complex, much of this loss has been blamed on the EU’s common fishery policy. This has heightened the town’s Euro-scepticism, intertwined with concerns about immigration. Stakeholders told us that in Grimsby, the referendum “had everything to do with opportunities” with many nostalgic for better times, feeling that migrants were taking their job prospects away.

Grimsby’s economic decline over recent decades has been well documented. While regeneration is underway, through new industry such as wind farms, upskilling local people and construction, unemployment remains a problem and there are pockets of high level deprivation across the town. Male unemployment is 7.1% in NE Lincolnshire, above the GB average of 4.6%, and some 14.4% of children are growing up in workless households. Median gross weekly pay is well below the national average and most work is low skilled, low paid, and often insecure. When we asked our citizens’ panel if they expected the local economy to get better after Brexit, we were told  “it could hardly get worse.”

High levels of unemployment has meant that Grimsby, and other parts of Humberside, have seen very little international migration until recently. An estimated 2,000 eastern European nationals have settled in and around Grimsby, although this figure excludes short-term migrants working in food and farming. They have tended to settled where accommodation is cheapest – often in properties in the areas of the highest deprivation, which has resulted in some tension about neighbourhood decline. Grimsby’s poverty, loss of status, poor transport connectivity and largely white British population suggest ‘closed’ communities that struggle to adapt to change and absorb newcomers.

While job displacement has not been a dominant concern across the country, precarious work and a lack of jobs fed into resentment of migrants for people we spoke to in Grimsby. While some felt that migrants worked hard in jobs that British people were unwilling to do, many felt they had been displaced by EU migrants willing to take jobs in worse conditions and for less pay.

The panel were cynical about zero hours contracts which they felt could result in high turnovers and many relayed stories of being laid off from factory work. When asked about different groups of migrants, the panel felt that low skilled workers from the EU would not contribute to the economy. They perceived a high level of welfare dependency among EU migrants and felt that the factories would lay off staff after a couple of weeks, so these workers would fall back onto welfare benefits:

“If they come over for low skilled jobs, fair enough, but they could lose that job within three weeks. So then they start claiming benefits anyway… For a low skilled job, you know they might not even be paying them, you know like in the factories they come and go people, you know they lay them off all the time.”

This sense of precarity and loss was not only economic, but cultural. Fishing has historically informed much of the town’s identity, as dangerous work on the fleets offered a strong sense of community and belonging. All panel members felt that they had a sense of English identity that was waning, and felt that they had been forced to pander to the sensitivities of migrants. We were told of fears that British people could no longer celebrate traditional festivals such as Easter for fear of causing offense.

The conversations we had in Grimsby were insightful, although much of the conversations we had were broader than about just immigration, but about changing life under globalisation. There were clearly anxieties about immigration, but securing greater public trust for immigration in Grimsby will require more than policy changes to immigration alone. We have written previously about the importance of addressing local issues in order to meet a consensus on immigration. In deprived areas such as Grimsby, we will not win public support for immigration policy unless we address factors such as regeneration and job security and offer everyone economic opportunities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *