Whitley Bay, North Tyneside: welcoming and compassionate, with some immigration anxieties

There are big plans for Whitley Bay. The regeneration of the seafront promenade, with new attractions, restaurants and a Premier Inn hotel looking out over the sea; and the long-delayed refurbishment of the ‘Spanish City’, a Alhambra-esque domed palace that once formed the heart of an amusement park. That was in the days when tourists once flocked to this seaside town just outside Newcastle, many of them heading south from Scotland: as one of our Citizens Panel members put it, “the beach would be so packed you couldn’t find your mum and dad when you came out of the sea”.

But we weren’t here to talk about the town’s past glories nor its plans for the future, but about immigration – and what some of the 36,000 people who live here think should happen next as the Government starts to rethink immigration policy after we leave the EU.

Whitley Bay, like much of the surrounding region, is not an area of high migration – though around half of our citizens’ panel had worked with EU nationals and two were originally from continental Europe, having moved to the North-east after meeting and falling in love with British partners. It was in the NHS, however, where most people had encountered migrants – almost everyone could relate times when they had been treated by doctors or other medical staff from overseas.

These positive interactions clearly helped to shape a positive view among the group about skilled migration to the UK, from both within and outside the EU. The same could be said for international students: people were proud of the area’s universities and recognised that many international students were attracted to study there, and that this helps to bring money into both the university and the local economy. “It probably keeps my uni fees down too,” said one of the younger participants. Stakeholders expressed some worries, however, that some Chinese students were not mixing with local people and were not feeling particularly welcomed to the area.

The local stakeholders that we spoke to, comprising local government and civic society organisations, expressed worries about the impact of reduced low-skilled migration from the EU, particularly on staffing levels in care homes, construction sites and in the hospitality industry. As one of the citizens’ panellists put it, ‘migrants are doing the low-paid jobs that Brits don’t want to do.’

These positive views about migrants who make a contribution to the UK were balanced, however, by an equally strongly-felt antipathy to those who are perceived as exploiting the system. While the UK should welcome contributors, people told us, it should discourage those ‘coming to the country for the wrong reasons’. Most of the citizens’ panel felt strongly that the UK should take a tough line if migrants come to the UK so as to access benefits or to unfairly exploit the NHS, and also mentioned anxieties about organised gangs, traffickers and those who sympathise with terrorist organisations – while drawing a clear line between this minority and those people who have moved to the UK to work and pay taxes.

Given that it is quite difficult for migrants to access UK benefits, there may be a case for more action from government to make clear who can and cannot claim. The need for greater transparency and openness from government about immigration was a theme that was mentioned more than once in our discussions.

An effective system to determine which people are entitled to refugee protection and which are not would also help restore trust ion immigration, which was undermined by the chaos of Calais and stories in the media about young asylum seekers whom participants felt were clearly not under 18. This scepticism about the system, however, was balanced by compassion towards those fleeing the atrocities of the Syrian conflict.

The area has welcomed refugees, including a small number of resettled families from Syria. While these new arrivals are still trying to learn English, their integration has been helped by the efforts of the local authority, who have worked hard to introduce the new families to their neighbours. Involving the local council more in refugee and asylum issues more broadly would be a good thing, they felt, as the current lack of local authority influence over decisions meant that private contractors were housing asylum-seekers in the cheapest and lowest-quality housing in more deprived areas, which risked causing tensions and making it harder for people to rebuild their lives in the UK.

Overall, most people felt that the area has handled any pressures from immigration and that people rub along reasonably well. Ensuring that people who come to live here learn English, whether they are refugees or economic migrants, was key to integration, they felt – with some members of the group raising concerns about the cost of translating benefits and NHS documentation into different languages. Stakeholders said that they had seen an increase in complaints about hate speech and prejudice and that this was worrying, but were also keen to point out that this was from a very low base and remained thankfully rare.

That most new arrivals to this part of the north east felt welcomed came as little surprise, based on our brief experience with a group that was overwhelmingly warm, welcoming, compassionate and positive about people coming to their local area, despite some immigration anxieties.

A detailed report of our conversations with stakeholders and citizens in Whitley Bay will be uploaded to this site shortly

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