March, Cambridgeshire: Keeping up with the pace of change

Yesterday, the National Conversation continued its journey through the country to March, Cambridgeshire. March is a small Fenland market town between Ely and Wisbech. The Fenland’s farms and factories have always relied on new arrivals, from Irish migrants and Gypsy and Traveller communities in the 1800s, to workers escaping the depression in the Midlands and North in the 1980s and 1990s. The area’s economy relies on agriculture and manufacturing but the intensification of farming and food production, the increased consumption of processed food, and demand for ‘just-in-time’ production for has changed the nature of work in the Fens. It has quickly demanded a large and flexible workforce, in a sparsely populated rural area. Much of the work is low-paid, with long hours in harsh conditions.

Migration to the East of England has been rapid, with the foreign-born population in the region growing by 70% between 2001 and 2011. The diversity of Cambridgeshire cannot be underestimated, a region that is home to both one of the world’s wealthiest university and rural areas with some of the highest deprivation in England. The Fenlands itself is hugely diverse, with areas such as Chatteris experiencing the Economic spill over from the growing economy of nearby Cambridge. More isolated areas such as Wisbech, sitting on the Eastern edge of the country have seen less growth, and the economy remains focused on agri-manufacturing, which makes up nearly 50% of the area’s employment. Policy responses to migration need to take into account differences within the Fens.

Towns such as Wisbech have experienced some of the most rapid changes in the country as a result of immigration. The town’s population has hugely increased since the 2004 EU expansion as migrants have arrived from across Europe to take up hard, low wage work in the area’s fields and factories. Of the town’s 30,000 residents, over a third are now thought to be from Eastern Europe, many from Lithuania and Romania. The pace of change was high on the agenda for members of the public and stakeholders who joined the National Conversation in March who spoke about the difficulties in keeping up.

Housing was raised as a key local issue. Migrant workers in the area tend to live in private rental housing, but much of this is of poor quality and overcrowded. Of the 11,500 dwellings in Wisbech, 1,100 are multiple occupancy- essentially private-rental accommodation for migrant workers, much of it of poor quality and over-crowded. We were told “You’ve got one house or a flat, but with ten times the rubbish outside and six times the number of cars.”  We were given accounts of rogue landlords who did not maintain their properties or treated tenants badly. But with many migrants wanting to save money, and much work poorly paid, supply of affordable decent housing has not met demand and rogue landlords have been able to take advantage of this.

Members of the public shared concerns with migrant support groups, local authorities and businesses that migrants’ rights were being violated by some property owners. Many agreed that this in turn was making it difficult for migrants to integrate into their local communities, and resulting in patterns of residential segregation.

People in March gave a clear consensus that more needs to be done in the area to cope with the impact migration has had on the Fens’ swelling population. Poor housing is an issue that has affected migrants and citizens alike, and our panels sent a clear call to decision makers that more needs to be done to make sure local authorities have the powers and funding to regulate this. Beyond immigration policy, there is more to be done to ensure our communities live well together and we are all respected where we choose to call home.

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