Can Boston’s sense of community heal the Brexit fractures?

Can Boston’s sense of community heal the Brexit fractures?


When I meet Martyn Chambers, deacon at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Boston, Lincolnshire, he describes the town as “geographically isolated”.

Mike Cooper, a Conservative councillor, suggests that many Westminster politicians could not place Boston, or Lincolnshire, on a map.

Boston is a picturesque market town, dominated by the medieval tower of St Botolph’s Church, known locally as the Stump.

In 2001, its population comprised just 55,750 people, 97 per cent of whom were white British. By 2011, the population had grown to 64,637 people, 15.1 per cent of whom were immigrants.

As people migrated from eastern Europe to work in local farms and factories, Cooper suggests the demographic shift was a “massive, seismic change”. He cites this as the reason behind the 2016 EU referendum result.

This “isolated” place had the highest recorded percentage of Leave voters in the country, with 75.6 per cent voting for Brexit. For the national media, Boston was suddenly on the map.

Why Brexit?

Local politicians give various reasons for Boston’s support of Brexit. Anton Dani, an independent councillor who formerly represented Ukip, blames the pace of change. “If you suddenly have an influx of 30,000 people, people start to resent that,” he says.

Dani seems an unlikely Ukip candidate; he is Moroccan-born and his wife is Polish. Indeed, we discuss our families’ experiences of immigration – Dani moved to the UK in the 1980s, working briefly for Marco Pierre White. My father emigrated from Argentina at the same time.

Now, he runs Café de Paris, a European-style deli in Bridge Street. Yet he criticises the lack of integration in Boston as a factor behind the result.

Boston is rural and labour-hungry, so there can be no suggestion that migrants are competing with locals for jobs.

Cooper says the town has “always relied on overseas labour” but cites pressures on infrastructure and housing as a reason for the result. Unscrupulous landlords exploited the increasing demand.

“We’ve found some absolute horror stories,” he says. “People living in sheds two storeys up. That’s why people said, ‘enough is enough.’”

Cooper acknowledges the government’s austerity measures may have exacerbated problems. Boston is a low-wage economy and Boston Borough Council lacks the funding to build new homes (Boston is also on a flood plain, which makes it expensive to build).

One of the local estates has no money for street lighting at night. “Then they say austerity doesn’t hurt people,” he says. Has it made him doubt his own party? “Yes.”

Not everyone agrees that immigration levels have been excessive. The agricultural economy relies heavily on migrant labour.

Sue Lamb, who manages Lamb’s Flowers in nearby Spalding, says that of the 50 people she employs, there is one British person – a supervisor. “And that isn’t that we don’t look for local people, they just simply aren’t there,” she explains. “Without [immigrants] we’re scuppered.”

Complex issues simplified

Lamb feels people voted for Brexit “partially out of ignorance”, yet were also misled by the Leave campaign. In her view, it simplified complex issues: “The thing with a referendum is it’s one question that really covers a hundred, or a thousand questions.

Immigrants made up 15.1 per cent of Boston’s population in 2011 (Getty)

“But we are desperate for these people. The way we’ve treated them and made them feel will be to our cost.

“People don’t realise how they actually fill the plate. How when you go to hospital, nine times out of 10, it’s not a migrant who’s taken your place, it’s a migrant looking after you”.

Her words are borne out by research from the Migration Advisory Committee that found EU migrants contributed £4.7bn more in taxation than they received in benefits in 2016/17, as well as contributing “much more to the health service … than they consume”.

The report does echo concerns in Boston about pressures on housing. Immigration can increase rental prices through greater demand, yet the report suggests that, rather than being a net result of migration, these issues are partly caused by political decision-making and local authorities with “a higher refusal rate on major developments”.

Arguably, pressures on services are caused by a lack of planning and foresight from the government.

How does the Polish community feel?

For the Polish community, the referendum result has caused considerable uncertainty.

Outside St Mary’s Church, I speak to Eva Kowalska, an administration worker who moved from Poland in 2006. She describes Boston then as “a small village”; now, its streets are bustling.

“Eastern Europeans built Boston, basically,” she says. “Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the fields and the factories were Polish.”

After Brexit, Kowalska feels she can no longer plan for the future. She is unconvinced by Theresa May’s wavering assurances that EU migrants will be protected – the lack of clarity is too unsettling. “A lot of eastern Europeans are terrified,” she says.

Kowalska describes friends who have paid into mortgages, fearing they will return to Poland with nothing. “I think I will leave. I had a lot of dreams here … But [May] hasn’t decided, and even if she does, she won’t tell us the truth.”

Kowalska had thought of Boston as her home, but now she feels uncomfortable. “I don’t want to feel like a stranger here,” she says. Her experiences with locals have been positive and she was shocked by the referendum result.

She feels people were swayed by promises of improvements to the NHS. “Maybe they thought there would be less [immigrants], but they didn’t know what they were doing. I think they should have a second vote.”

Some residents feel Boston is misrepresented as a divided town (Getty)

Przemek Frankowski, who works in the White Hart Hotel, also supports the idea of a second referendum: “I’ve always been pro-EU – I feel it’s better to be within something bigger than being separate,” he says.

He has lived here for 13 years and has never felt unwelcome in Boston (“I’ve blended within the British community”) but thinks the impact on services might have contributed to the result, as well as drunkenness from a minority of immigrants.

He has not witnessed visible tension or racism, although he does recall hearing people say, “We want our country back” when television crews visited the town in 2016.

For Frankowski, who has a young daughter, what concerns him most is uncertainty over the future of EU migrants in the UK.

“That’s the one thing I would get worried about,” he says. “We hope we’re not going to be told, ‘Oh, well, I’m sorry but you have to go. We don’t want you anymore.’ That wouldn’t be fair on anybody.”

Miki Bura, a fellow employee who moved to Boston aged nine, says his parents felt shocked and unwelcome after the referendum. “People around here thought we were really coming to take over, but that’s not true,” he says. “All we’re trying to do is get a fair play in life.”

Newly-arrived immigrants are understandably more nervous. Zlana and Zlatiana Goneva, who moved from Bulgaria in 2017, run a brightly painted café selling crepes and pastries. Zlana was stunned by the result: “We came here to live our whole life. When you hear people voted against us, it means they don’t like us.

“It’s strange, because we don’t make problems. We work, we help their economy.”

A misrepresented place

At St Mary’s, I speak with Martyn Chambers as Father Kowalski prepares for the Polish-language mass.

Throughout our conversation, parishioners arrive bearing parcels for a Ukrainian children’s charity. When children sing in Polish at the front of the mass, the sense of belonging is palpable.

It seems absurd that anyone would question the Polish community’s presence here.

Chambers feels Boston is misrepresented as a fractured or divided place. “We had easily in excess of 20 nationalities at the English morning mass,” he explains. “Polish people attend the English mass. To make out the Polish community has been a problem ignores the other communities we’ve had for many, many years.”

He points out the long-standing Keralan, Filipino and Portuguese communities here.

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For Chambers, people voted for Brexit because they were misled, especially with regard to promises about the NHS. “Politicians were throwing out facts and figures like confetti,” he says. Boston’s size and geographical isolation may also have led to resentment over rising immigration levels. “The difficulty for Bostonians was the speed of change.”

Despite this, he thinks “there is a great sense of community. If you go into schools, the children all have friends of different nationalities.”

Indeed, the Ofsted report for Staniland Academy, which has a high proportion of EAL (English as an Additional Language) students, describes pupils who are “curious about each other’s cultures and backgrounds, and get on noticeably well together”.

“The changes are coming through the young people of the town,” says Chambers. “And I passionately believe that’s showing already.”

Catherine Lough is a freelance journalist studying for an MA in international journalism at City, University of London. She has worked in a voluntary capacity for Amnesty International UK and Amnesty Chile

This essay is extracted from ‘Do They Mean Us? – The foreign correspondents’ view of Brexit’, edited by John Mair and Neil Fowler, published by Bite-Sized Books and also available from Amazon.


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