Lincoln: Why language matters

Our last East Midlands visit was to Lincoln where our much of citizens’ panel discussion focused on language barriers. From being a non-diverse cathedral city some 25 years ago, Lincoln and its environs have seen the arrival of significant numbers of both EU migrants and international students. The pace of change has caused some tension in the city.

Lincoln’s population now numbers 96,000, of which 11% of people are estimated to have been born overseas.  The migrant population includes about 1,400 international students studying in the two universities based in Lincoln and over 6,000 EU migrants. The area’s population has also grown through seasonal migration, as migrant workers arrive to the UK to take up short-term jobs in food, farming and tourism. Local population estimates do not include migrants who intend to stay in the UK for less than 12 months. In the summer months, Lincoln’s migrant population is larger.

Our citizens’ panel saw both pressures and gains of migration. They thought that the presence of international students had brought benefits to Lincoln and they did not view this group as migrants. The citizens’ panel also felt that Lincolnshire’s economy had benefitted from the contribution of migrant workers. Lincoln lies just north of the Fens, the UK’s agricultural heartland.  The farms and food processing factories of the sparsely population Fens have always relied on outsiders, from Irish and Poles in the 1950s, to workers escaping the depression in the Midlands and the North in the 1980s and 1990s. The intensification of agriculture, food production, the increased consumption of processed food, and ‘just-in-time’ production has increased the demand for labour which has largely been met by EU nationals.

Boston lies just 35 miles away by road and participants’ views about this town were continually brought up in the discussion. In the ten years between the 2001 and 2011 census, the percentage of migrants in Boston’s population increased by 390%. In the EU referendum in 2016, the Leave vote in Boston – at 76% – was the highest in the country.

The Lincoln citizens’ panel wanted changes to the regulations covering EU migration. Some of the group wanted tighter controls on numbers – a quota system where the numbers of people admitted could be higher or low as the economy needed. But all of the Lincoln citizens panel wanted EU nationals who come to the UK to be better integrated into their local communities. In particular, they felt that migrants needed to speak better English. Concerns about language barriers were more strongly voiced in Lincoln than anywhere else we have visited so far. We were told:

“People don’t feel happy about going into work anymore, because they can’t have a conversation.”

The City of Lincoln Council and Lincolnshire County Council, together with universities and colleges have taken the initiative and considered how they should promote the integration of migrants. The city council has a plan to encourage integration. With large numbers of students and migrant workers living in private rental accommodation, the district councils have introduced landlord licensing schemes in some areas to make sure that those renting property maintain it. This helps prevent neighbourhoods with large amounts of rental property going into a spiral of decline. As we noted when we visited March in the Fens last year, badly maintained and over-crowded housing can contribute to tension and resentment and mundane conflicts over parking spaces and overflowing bins.

But breaking down language barriers is more challenging. For many seasonal and short-term migrants from eastern Europe there may be few incentives to learn English, particularly if most of your work colleagues speak your home language. While there are English language classes on offer in Lincoln, migrants who work long hours struggle to attend them.

Having a language in common is key to integration, but many new migrants cannot speak and write English well or at all – 8,500 in Lincolnshire at the time of the 2011 census. The obligation to pass an English test to obtain British citizenship or get a non-EU work, student or family visa provides an incentive for migrants from outside the EU, but less so for migrant workers in Lincolnshire who are mostly from the EU.

We need incentives to encourage migrant workers to learn English, but also help for them to do so. While colleges offer classes, central government needs to provide stable funding for them. In England, regulations on the funding of adult education change almost every year, with budgets for English language introduced and later abolished. In some UK cities, charities run informal drop in classes, sometimes called language cafes, many of which are run by volunteers. We need many more of these, particularly in smaller towns across the UK.  But support cannot be reliant on volunteers. Other counties also use freeview channels to provide language classes on the TV, but we do not do so in the UK. Above all, we need leadership, nationally, regionally and locally to improve English language fluency. Where people have a language in common, misunderstandings between newcomers and long settled residents are far less likely to arise.

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