Polish invasion that's SAVED my home town: An influx of 25,000 Poles has left Southampton's schools full to bursting - with some locals feeling pushed out. But BARBARA DAVIES, who grew up there, found there's another side to the story
Shelves in the Malinka delicatessen groan beneath piles of pickled vegetables, fish, rye bread and canned meats. A mother with a baby in a pram jokes with the dark-haired shop assistant as she points towards the thin, rusty-coloured kabanos sausages in the chiller cabinet.
It is impossible to know exactly what she is ordering because the two women are speaking quickly, quietly - and in Polish. So are another shop assistant and the other customers, a young blond couple with a baby and an elderly woman with a headscarf, trailing a shopping trolley behind her.
Step outside the shop and there are two Polish hairdressers, one called Ana, the other Aga, a Polish newsagent, several Polish supermarkets, Polish off-licences, car mechanics and translation services.
Yet this isn’t a boulevard in Krakow, but Southampton’s Shirley Road.
Here, in the city of my birth, it occurs to me for a moment that I am now the stranger — excluded by language and culture. Certainly, the Southampton of my childhood has altered beyond recognition.
Nearly ten years have passed since Poland joined the EU in May 2004, allowing workers to migrate here in search of work. Southampton now has more Polish inhabitants than any other city outside London.
Most recent figures show that there are now 25,000 Poles living in the city. With a population of around 240,000, that means more than one in ten is Polish.
Polish roots in the city stretch back to the end of World War II when Polish servicemen settled here — fighter pilots who had fled their country after fighting the Luftwaffe having been among the bravest in the Battle of Britain.
Andy Phillips, greengrocer
More recently, immigrants were drawn here by South Coast fruit farms offering seasonal work. As friends and families followed in their footsteps, hard work and initiative brought growing prosperity.
In Shirley, one of Southampton’s major residential suburbs, Polish can be heard everywhere. Shop windows are filled with advertisement cards in Polish, hand-written by those looking for work or seeking or offering accommodation.
It’s the kind of scenario that has Ukip supporters jumping up and down with outrage about the cost to society of Britain’s reckless immigration policies. And there are those here who call the city ‘Little Poland’ and rail against the Polish influx — but a walk along the length of Shirley High Street suggests a rather more complex reality.
Halfway down the street, greengrocers Andy and Pam Phillips have been selling fruit and veg for nearly half a century. Even on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, when the aisles of the local Tesco are almost deserted, there are queues in front of the stall which the husband and wife, both 72, run from outside their shop, Affordable Fruits.
‘If it wasn’t for the Poles, I would have closed down years ago,’ says Mr Phillips. ‘They’re much healthier than the Brits, more old-fashioned. They eat loads of fruit and veg, and they cook from scratch.
‘While lots of Brits go to the supermarkets, the Polish and the Eastern Europeans shop with us. We’re the closest thing they can find to what they left back at home.
‘They’ve injected new life into the area at a time when lots of shops around here were closing down.’
The couple know many of their customers by name.
‘We even speak a bit of Polish to them — Czesć for hi, and Dzieki for thanks,’ says Pam. ‘It’s a multi-cultural city and we have customers from all over the world. We don’t care what nationality they are. We don’t have an axe to grind with anyone.’
Beavering away alongside the pair is a quiet and petite young blonde woman, their Polish assistant Tosaa Mucha. The 32-year-old came to the UK seven years ago from a village outside Krakow with her husband Mareusz, who works on a chicken farm. Tosaa’s mother cares for their five-year-old son, Mateusz.
Many Poles who come to the UK are following friends and relatives. Tosaa says they were encouraged to come by her brother-in-law, who had already found work here.
‘We went to a Polish job agency and they quickly found us work,’ she says. ‘We have a much better life here. We can earn more money and look after our son, and there are so many more opportunities for him. There is plenty of good work here.’
Indeed, meeting and speaking to the Poles who have settled here, what is striking is just how self-reliant and aspirational they are.
Conversely, the men I see propped up in the doorway of The Shirley Hotel Pub in the midday sun, with a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other, are British, not Polish.
Similarly, the harassed mothers with toddlers and babies, manhandling their buggies through the doors of the local McDonald’s, are screeching at their children in English, not Polish.
Among the Phillipses’ Polish customers is 29-year-old Pawel Krasinski, the man they fondly refer to as ‘Mr Juicy’. He is buying armfuls of carrots and celery for the cold-pressed fresh fruit and vegetable juice business he runs from his nearby home.
‘I came from south-west Poland seven years ago,’ he says. ‘I worked as a nutritionist there, but over here I found work with a food manufacturer and learnt everything I needed to know to set up my own food business. I could never have done that in Poland. There are better opportunities here if you are prepared to work hard.’
Pawel, who produces 40 bottles of juice each day and delivers them to customers by car, is now saving up to buy a £15,000 industrial-sized cold-presser so that he can expand his business.
Further along the High Street, tongue-in-cheek posters advertise Polish ‘Pole Dancing’ fitness classes run by 32-year-old single mother Marzena Bobova, who set up her business, M&K Dance And Fitness, two years ago.
The daughter of a factory worker, she came to the UK from the city of Czechowice-Dziedzice in 2008, with her lorry driver husband and their daughter Kasia, who is now 11.
In Poland, she earned £200 a month as a sales assistant in a lighting shop. After her divorce, she worked in a photographic shop while training to be a dance instructor at nearby Eastleigh College.
‘I was lucky because I went in to print my CV and the owner saw it and offered me a job,’ she says. ‘But I always dreamed of having my own dance business.’
Last year’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the South Coast Business Awards was won by another young Pole, 22-year-old Tomasz Dyl, who has been running his own marketing agency, GottaBe, since the age of 17 while studying at Southampton Solent University.
Entrepreneurial stories such as these cast doubt on the commonly spouted argument that Poles are taking jobs from British workers.
Ruth Peters, former business owner
And yet it is not hard to find those who are disgruntled with the way that Southampton has changed in recent years.
Lacy Flahavan, a 23-year-old mother from Shirley, says she sometimes feel intimidated by the number of Polish mothers at her 18-month-old son’s nursery.
‘It’s slowly starting to become a Polish town,’ she says. ‘The mothers all stick together, and all speak Polish. It’s quite intimidating, to be honest. I feel like I can’t talk to parents outside of the playgroup because they are quite daunting groups.
‘I have friends who have struggled to find jobs and have found it really difficult competing with the amount of people in this area.’
Ruth Peters, 72, who used to own a cleaning company, puts it rather more bluntly: ‘There isn’t enough room for everybody who comes to the city. There’s a shortage of housing, and immigration does also have an impact on jobs.
‘While I know a lot of good comes from immigration, with the young Polish people who have such a good work ethic, there just isn’t the room for any more.’
Mick Hudson, 61, who owns an electrical company in Shirley, says: ‘When you walk up and down the High Street, English is a minority language. Immigration is a hot topic here, and you can understand why.’
Not surprisingly, the issue is one which Ukip has enthusiastically embraced. The party’s Southampton chairman is Jamaican-born Pearline Hingston, who came to the UK in the Sixties.
She says: ‘I’ve got nothing against Polish people. Immigrants from Eastern Europe are not to blame for coming to the UK. It is our Government that is at fault.
‘We are now full, and cannot cope with any more car washers and painters and decorators. Public services are buckling under the strain. There are stresses on the sewage and waste system, and the hospitals and schools, and we have a problem with multi-occupancy houses. People talk about the benefits of immigration — but people in Southampton will tell you that the negatives outweigh the positives.’
According to the Office for National Statistics, Poles are now the most common non-British group of nationals living in the UK. Current figures suggest there are 700,000 Polish-born nationals living here, though some estimates place this figure closer to a million.
In immigration hotspots such as Southampton, this has undoubtedly placed additional pressures on schools and other services.
Among statistics cited by Ukip supporters is that the last ten years has seen an extra 1,000 babies being born every year in the city.
At St Mark’s Primary School in Shirley’s Stafford Road, pupils speak a staggering 42 different languages between them. Nearly a third speak Polish as their first language, and only one in four children are white British. The school featured in a BBC TV documentary, The Truth About Immigration, earlier this year.
Councillor Simon Letts, the Labour leader of Southampton City Council, says the influx of Poles has been a ‘breath of fresh air’ to the city.
‘They are keen to participate, and they’re really economically active. Southampton is used to waves of immigration. We are an international port city. We are used to absorbing people and building what they have to offer into the wider mix of the city.’
Mr Letts, who says his daughter attends a local school with several Polish friends, adds: ‘Our school results were falling slightly, but they’re now up to the national average. I think that is partly due to the ethos of hard work that’s come with the new immigrants.’
But he admits that the Polish influx has placed strains on council resources.
‘We have had to manage things like school places. Our school places are now full, and we have had to provide additional school places for four schools with government money; but three of those are not in areas with a high concentration of Poles.
‘A lot of it is to do with the national increase in birth rate. It has been an issue for the council, but we’ve resolved it.’
He also dismisses the idea that the Polish community is putting extra stresses on local hospitals. ‘They are a young population, so they have a relatively low impact on hospital services. The vast majority are under 40, and they’re putting far more into the city economically than they are taking out in terms of health.
‘There are some stresses and strains on the system, but there is also an upside in the number of new businesses being created that are paying business rates, and the contribution that people make to city life.’
His argument is backed up by 64-year-old Polish-born Barbara Storey, who came to the UK 20 years ago to marry her naval officer husband, Peter. She set up charity and business support group SOS Polonia ten years ago, offering advice to newcomers from Poland.
‘People come because of aspiration or desperation,’ she says. ‘Either way, they want to work and find new opportunities. They don’t come for benefits.
Pie shop owner Tony Jones
‘The idea that they are taking jobs from local people is not true either. I had a big employer come to me in desperation because he needed 40 people for his work force and not one person had replied to his advert in the Job Centre.
‘Within two days of alerting the local community, he had 80 applications from Polish workers. They don’t undercut anyone else’s wages and they are paying their taxes.
‘When they first arrive, Polish people are prepared to take most jobs because they understand that they have to prove themselves.’
For those, like me, who remember Shirley as it was — with a High Street lined with shoe shops and old-fashioned ladies’ corsetry shops, two fishmongers and a butcher — it is impossible not to feel nostalgic about the past.
But the decline of such shops, from the late Eighties onwards, came long before the arrival of the Poles. Aside from the Polish stores, what is striking about Shirley High Street is the vast number of charity shops. Sue Ryder is here, so is Oxfam and Cancer Research.
In between, you will find a pound store and a mobility scooter shop, as well as a couple of boarded-up pubs. The Polish economy is the only one that appears to be blossoming here.
It is the businesses that have embraced the changes brought by immigration that seem to be doing the best.
The oldest shop on the street is Plested Pies, which is something of a culinary institution in Southampton for those who can still remember when their pies could be bought for a shilling apiece. The company has had a shop here since 1933, and the queue of people waiting for a batch of freshly baked pies is a mixture of Brits and Poles, as well as other Eastern Europeans and Asians.
Owner Tony Anthony Jones says: ‘The arrival of the Polish hasn’t hurt my business at all. I’ve never had any problems. Everyone is welcome here.’
Shirley High Street, he admits, has changed beyond recognition in recent years. ‘But that’s the reality of life, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘Times change, and you have to adapt or fall by the wayside.’