The Potteries: “Immigration has got an image problem”

The National Conversation’s visit to the Potteries gave us the opportunity to have a wide-ranging discussion about immigration on the area, with issues such as asylum dispersal raised by our citizens’ panel as well as some of the economic trade-offs involved in future immigration policy. The citizens’ panel also discussed the role of different sources of information in forming views on immigration. “Immigration has got an image problem,” said one panel member. “What I see in the media is men aged 18-40 coming through Calais. That is what I see on a day-to-day basis”

The panel was held in Newcastle-under-Lyme, a town of 127,000 people. While spanning two local authorities, Newcastle-under Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent could be considered to be part of the same North Staffordshire conurbation, although Newcastle is more prosperous than the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent.  In both areas, the industrial economy was traditionally based on coal mining, iron and steel, engineering and ceramics, with about 70,000 people employed in North Staffordshire potteries in 1960. The mines and foundries are now closed, and much engineering and ceramics production has been relocated abroad. Nevertheless, some engineering and ceramics remain, and the Staffordshire pottery industry has experienced a recent renaissance.

There is a large British Pakistani community in this part of North Staffordshire, numbering about 20,000 people, many of whom are the children and grandchildren of those who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s. More recently, asylum-seekers have been dispersed to Stoke-on-Trent. Two universities – Keele and Staffordshire – educate over 2,500 international students between them. The area is also home to about 6,000 migrants from the EU, mostly from Poland and Romania. As in other parts of the UK, many of the new EU migrants had moved into areas with available private-rented accommodation. We were given accounts of over-crowded and badly maintained housing and of neighbourhood decline, a situation which had undoubtedly caused resentment from others who live in the area. Unlike Northampton and Southampton, our Potteries panel had little social contact with newly-arrived EU migrants, reflecting segregated neighbourhoods and workplaces.

While the rate of international migration into the Potteries has recently fallen and is lower than the UK as whole, this does not stop immigration from being a much talked-about issue. In last year’s EU referendum 69% of votes were cast for Leave in Stoke and 63% in Newcastle-under-Lyme, with immigration being a factor in many people’s ballot box choices. Certainly, many members of the citizens’ panel talked about immigration with their family and friends. The conversation then moved on to discuss reliable and unreliable sources of information on immigration.

Most of the panel formed their views from a range of sources, with some people basing their views on personal contact and everyday experiences where they work or live. Social media and print media had informed panel members in some cases, as well as the opinions of family, friends and acquaintances. Most people seemed able to identify reliable and genuine views on immigration from those that were not, with one panel member humorously noting:

“Don’t we all have a mate called Dave in the pub who knows everything? Have a word with Dave, get him a pint, he’ll tell you.”

But many people admitted feeling confused. They recognised that some media coverage of immigration was inaccurate or sensationalist. At the same time, panel members had mixed views about what they saw around them in the Potteries, balancing the contribution that migrants were making to the NHS, against concerns about neighbourhood decline and pressures on public services.

“It’s not the actual article [in the media] it’s the actual interpretation. I think immigration is difficult personally because the only thing you hear about immigration is from the media, and I don’t necessarily trust what the media is saying on immigration. I don’t really know what goes on, what checks they actually carry out.”

Throughout the discussion, panel members were willing to challenge each other when they disagreed with comments. As in most other panels, this happened in a polite and respectful manner, showing that it is possible to have a decent conversation about immigration. Our panel felt that the tone of face-to-face discussion was very different from online debates about immigration.

As with other citizens’ panels, a few people who attended our Potteries panel had tried to research immigration online, but had been unable to find trusted and accessible sources of information. But filling this gap in information is not as simple as it sounds – it is not as easy as setting up a website. Much research shows that most people only trust statistics that broadly fit with their general outlook and views about the world.  People don’t like lectures from those seen as ‘experts’ when it comes to contentious issues such as immigration, climate change or Brexit. What would be better is a face-to-face open conversation in the places where people meet and mix with others, facilitated at workplaces, through political parties, faith and civil society organisations. Our experience to date shows that most people are capable of challenging unreliable commentators like ‘Dave’ in the pub,  and coming to their own conclusions.

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