Catherine Barnard and Fiona Costello outline the findings of their new UK in a Changing Europe working paper, which examines the impact of EU migration on a particular community – Great Yarmouth – in order to better understand the long-term effects of free movement on both migrants themselves and local communities.
Outside London, the East of England witnessed the largest post-2004 migration in the country, and the coastal town of Great Yarmouth (Norfolk) became host to many of these EU migrants as they took up low-paid jobs in agriculture and food processing.
This EU migration occurred at a time when the UK was facing both significant austerity measures and increasing pressures on public services.
For the existing local population, free movement was what other (foreign) people did. It happened to them and, as far as they were concerned, it did not benefit them or their families. The referendum provided an outlet to express local concern: Great Yarmouth had the fifth highest ‘leave’ vote. Over 70% of voters in the town supported the UK leaving the EU.
Our new working paper, ‘When (EU) migration came to Great Yarmouth’, outlines the impact of EU migration on Great Yarmouth. Only by understanding the experience of migration on a particular community over time can the long-term impact of free movement be properly understood.
We show that Great Yarmouth has always been a town of migration but the sudden arrival of large numbers of EU nationals in 2004, exercising their free movement rights, in a relatively short space of time has created divisions in the town, divisions which may take decades to heal.
Great Yarmouth was once an important fishing port in the UK, owing to the abundance of herring in the local waters. Following the arrival of the railway in 1844, Great Yarmouth became a popular seaside destination.
Dickens stayed in Yarmouth in 1849 and part of David Copperfield was set there. Tourists were entertained by travelling celebrity acts at the Great Yarmouth Pavilion and international circus acts at The Hippodrome. Houdini, Charlie Chaplin and The Beatles all performed in the town.
However, this changed in the early twentieth century. As a port on the east coast, it was badly bombed in both wars. Due to overfishing, the herring stocks also declined, and tourists started to look to sunnier locations in continental Europe for their holidays. Yet post war, a number of Cypriot families moved to Great Yarmouth to start businesses; which is now perceived as having been beneficial to the town.
Modern day Great Yarmouth now has high levels of deprivation. Thirteen of its neighbourhoods are ranked in the top 10% of areas of relative deprivation nationally, with some central wards featuring in the most deprived neighbourhoods. Some 20% of working age residents are in receipt of at least one out-of-work benefit. The proportion of residents aged 16-64 years who claim benefits/Universal Credit is more than double the national average. 17% of households experience fuel poverty compared with 15.6% in Norfolk and 13.2% in England.
Norfolk Insight data shows that 20% of children in the borough are living in low-income families compared with 12% in Norfolk, and 15% in England.
There are low levels of educational attainment in the town, too, with 26.5% of residents having no formal qualifications, placing Yarmouth sixth lowest in the country (ONS 2021).
EU migration to the town
Yet there was still demand for workers in and around the town, mainly in labour intensive sectors, referred to as the ‘3 Ps’ (picking, packing and plucking), jobs seen as less desirable to locals, where the pay is low and conditions poor. So, during EU membership, employers and recruitment agencies took advantage of EU labour to meet worker shortages. This recruitment was successful: according to EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) data as many as one in every ten residents in the Great Yarmouth area (population of about 100,000) is an EU national, mostly living in former tourist accommodation (hotels, B&Bs) which are now used as HMOs (house of multiple occupation).
EU nationals have come to Great Yarmouth via different access routes and in different waves, broadly coinciding with accession dates of their countries to the EU: first from Portugal, including a large diasporic Portuguese population particularly from Africa and South East Asia; then the ‘Eastern Bloc’, particularly Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian nationals, and finally the ‘A2’ migration, especially from Romania and Bulgaria.
Virtually all of the EU national workers we have spoken to in our research have worked in local meat (poultry) factories. Workers usually travel well over an hour each day from Great Yarmouth to the factory where they work (usually) a 12-hour shift. These long days, working largely alongside only other non-English speakers, means that EU nationals have limited time to integrate into their new community or to learn English.
The rapid arrival of so many migrant workers in a short space of time has created tensions in the town, with some (Great Yarmouth-born) locals, feeling that some, more central areas of the town are now ‘out of bounds’ and that the identity of the(ir) town has changed.
There is also a feeling that new(er) migrant communities are receiving benefits the local born communities are not, benefits which enable the EU migrants to open supermarkets and cafes when others are struggling to find work. There is little mixing between the migrant and local communities.
What happened when EU migration came to Great Yarmouth?
Great Yarmouth has changed. It is now more diverse, ethnically, and culturally. Migrant communities have opened a range of businesses in the town centre, contributing to the local economy. New businesses, new churches, more HMOs mean the physical space has also changed.
For the town itself, there is considerable divide between the communities. However, there may be some hope that, with the passage of time, the post-2004 migration becomes more accepted, as was the case with earlier migrant groups such as the Cypriot families. It may be then that those with settled status are seen as assets to the town, and not perceived as burdens who are ‘othered’ and marginalised.
By Catherine Barnard, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, and Fiona Costello, Research Associate, University of Cambridge.
You can see the full working paper ‘When (EU) migration came to Great Yarmouth’ via the UK in a Changing Europe website here.