Northampton: Economic grievances with immigration more than a single issue

Employment and quality of life issues dominated the discussion when the National Conversation on Immigration visited Northampton on Wednesday. It also made us question what we mean by ‘left behind’ – a term that has become part of the political lexicon since the referendum.

A fast train line to London has attracted those who are employed in the capital but can’t afford to buy a home closer to where they work.  There has been council investment to attract newcomers: a new university campus and railway station and the development of a cultural quarter with gallery space and cafes.  But people talked about how this gentrification has not touched longer-established residents and how Northampton feels like a divided town.

Official labour market statistics encapsulate this divide quite starkly: the average gross weekly earnings of men who live in Northampton is £565 per week, but those who work in Northampton it is £513. This tells a story about commuters who are faring well by working in London, but also the loss of skilled and semi-skilled work in Northampton itself, and with it many people’s prospects of a decent wage and career.

Northampton has a real street market in a lovely square, but in nearby streets beautiful ironstone buildings sit side-by-side with boarded-up properties and pound shops.  As a designated New Town, Northampton’s population expanded rapidly in the 1970s when many people were still employed in shoe-making and engineering. Today, just under 225,000 people live in Northampton, but much of that manufacturing industry has gone. Most jobs are now in the service sector – Barclaycard is a major employer. Northampton’s proximity to the M1 makes it an attractive location for distributing and warehousing operations, a sector that employs both Brits and migrant workers, many of whom are in precarious and low-paid work.

About 15% of Northampton’s population has been born overseas. The town a has long-established black Caribbean community, and significant Bangladeshi and Zimbabwean communities. There has also been much recent migration from Eastern Europe, with an estimated 12,000 new EU migrants believed to be living in Northampton.

Almost everyone who attended our citizens’ panel worked alongside migrant workers. There was a recognition that Northampton’s Poles, Romanians and Lithuanians were in work and paying taxes. But this was balanced by concerns: More than any other place we visited, panel members were worried about the effect of large-scale migration from eastern Europe on wages and working conditions. Our panel felt that EU migrants were willing to work for less money and accept jobs that involved work outside normal school or office hours.

“I worry about the low skilled one, because that’s cheap labour and it brings our wages down too. It’s not that I have anything against people working cheaply, it’s just that it keeps our wages down as well as theirs”

 “I’m proudly working for a company which won an award for employing back-to-work mums, but there’s plenty of people out there in the market looking for jobs- and employers, they don’t want to have to deal with people’s flexibility.”

Our visit to Northampton raised many questions about policy responses to globalisation and the changing nature of work. In the face of strong global competition, how should Government, councils and wider society respond to precarious work conditions? How can parents be supported to return to work after having children? How can we give everyone the chance of bettering themselves at work? The Government that is elected on the 8th of June will put forward a new migration policy, but the Government cannot deal with migration in isolation to other policy areas.  The people of Northampton want answers to their concerns about EU migration. But they also want the Government to deal with this alongside work, skills and economic regeneration.

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