Guesthouse living – Yarmouth’s hidden housing stock


At 6 o’clock each morning migrant workers line up at the Nelson Street bus stop in central Great Yarmouth, bound for Bernhard Matthews poultry farm in Holton, Suffolk. The chartered route is one of 12 run across parts of East Anglia by the established turkey farmer who advertises overseas in recruitment agencies from Poland to Portugal. The scene is repeated in the afternoon for the second shift of the day, a picture which to many in the town exposes a wholly unsatisfactory condition, a level of immigration which in their eyes has become totally unmanageable. Politically the seat of Yarmouth is, and has been ever since the arrival of UKIP as a major threat in Westminster, a seemingly easy target for Nigel Farage’s party representing as it does in such uncensored fashion, a left-behind Britain in UKIP’s ‘Eastern heartlands.’

Arriving into the town on a January morning, it appears difficult to shake off the stigma attached so heavily to Yarmouth, a seaside town gripped by deeply woven deprivation, unemployment, ever diminishing seasonal tourism and simmering societal tensions. Acting almost as a solitary island on the East Anglian coast in which a tasteless Vegas-inspired strip commands the seafront, containing within it the usual amusement paraphernalia undergoing a sleepy off-season refurbishment.

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Walking past the boarded up tourist information office and the series of garishly-painted shopfronts, one of which proudly declares itself the ‘World Class East Anglia Mini Albert Hall,’ I venture inland to meet the swathes of terraced seaside guesthouses. Unanimously declaring with dated signage offerings of colour televisions and en-suite rooms, whole streets are lined with 2-storey terrace buildings built during the booming  periods of the 1960s and 70s.

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Perhaps one of the most revealing stages upon which current sentiment can be gauged is UKIP’s own office in Great Yarmouth. I peer in through the shopfront window to see a series of white A4 sheets with black Arial text outlining policies soon to be formalised into the glossy colour prints blazoned with Nigel Farage’s face ready for the upcoming election campaign. Without fully contemplating my actions I wander in to a room which resembles a doctor’s surgery waiting area. Two individuals rise simultaneously from their seats and warmly welcome me in, quickly introducing themselves as Derek and Irene before the charm offensive duly begins.

A large map of South East England above Derek’s desk outlines UKIP’s concentration of Eastern support, namely in the seats of Boston, Clacton, South Thanet, Thurrock and Great Yarmouth. Various figures are cast in my direction, the most puzzling of which stating that immigration levels in the town have risen between 6 and 30% in the past five years, which struck me as fairly vague data. ‘What we’re seeing is those who would have voted Labour in the nearby areas moving over to UKIP.’ Derek tells me. ‘You used to never hear a foreign voice in the streets around here and now people are thinking to themselves: where have all these people come from?’ While I listen intently Derek’s assistant places a piece of rock candy in my palm, coloured in UKIP purple-and-yellow with the title ‘Together we Rock’ below the face of  candidate Alan Grey. She points me in the direction of a women’s clothing store opposite which she claims was set up with the aid of a £54,000 government grant by a Portuguese speaking couple from a former colony in Africa. The shop remains closed all year round she tells me, the couple only surfacing to show their face in order to collect their post from the premises.

When I bring up the topic of tensions within the community the pair point in the direction from which I had just arrived, namely in and around St. Peter’s Road, a hotspot of migrant community stores and activity. Tensions spill over particularly in the evening hours, Derek informs me, due in part to the presence of gang-controlled areas by Eastern Europeans who habitually carry knives (a trait backed up in Derek’s experience from his time working as a prison officer). Living in the town of Caister-on-Sea, however, he is unable to confirm these claims first hand and is, like many in the town, relying on the local press for such information. ‘We did have one case where a Portuguese cafe put up a sign saying ‘We don’t serve the English.’ Trading standards had to come in to sort it out. You can’t have that.’

Suggesting I speak to the chairman for UKIP Great Yarmouth, Irene had already picked up the phone before I could respond. Derek kindly opens the door for me, doing up his waterproof jacket as he suggests escorting me down the high street to a shop run by a close friend of UKIP candidate Alan Grey, chairman for Great Yarmouth Robert Montgomery. Speaking in hushed tones as if revealing some inner gossip in the corner of a secondary school playground, Derek eyes up a man ahead speaking in Portuguese who he tells me he sees daily on the street on crutches, thereby not working and emblematic of the prized UKIP target: the benefit tourist. Shortly after we arrive at the Army and Navy store which Robert runs, clad in multiple layers of camouflage clothing and a baseball cap (which seems to be a ubiquitous accessory in the town). Robert appears instantly on guard and far more measured than his colleagues. Dividing his time between running his shop, overseeing UKIP’s activities locally and managing a series of properties all of which he revealingly lets to Portuguese tenants, individuals his party would prevent moving to the UK under current party policy.

Asked whether or not he felt immigration in Great Yarmouth has spiralled out of control he remains reserved in his opinion, searching for a more manageable level of migration to ease familiar issues of sanitation, infrastructure and healthcare provision. Montgomery reveals the story of asylum seekers arriving under the export of people from areas from which he was brought up in East London to Yarmouth where he has lived for 12 years. He describes immigration rather conservatively as being ‘above a level to which a town can sustain’ and crucially comprised of those seeking to settle and raise future generations who will inevitably require healthcare, schools and services like anyone else. Although migrants do work in seasonal agricultural tasks, those working in the food packaging factories and poultry farms are generally here to settle and to attempt to improve their own individual opportunities.

Montgomery goes on to explain Yarmouth’s (almost) unique policy of housing provision. Seeing as such a large amount of building in Yarmouth was intended under the heading of hotels, guesthouses, boarding houses and accommodation catered for the tourist, the relatively small remainder dedicated solely to housing combined with the stagnant rate of housebuilding means that as a town it is operating at or above capacity. From 1999 or so onwards under the immigration policy of Blair’s Labour government, parts of London in particular became overwhelmed with asylum seekers and other migrants whom they were required to provide housing for. Increasingly desperate hoteliers and small businesses in peripheral areas of the UK such as Yarmouth ended up offering up unoccupied rooms as temporary housing for a typical fee of around £15/night compared with the cost of around £50/night to provide an equivalent East London home. Yarmouth became in Montgomery’s eyes ‘a housing estate by the sea’ with a ‘skeleton crew’ in place to keep things running in off-peak periods. Whereas previously the town would be occupied solely by permanent or retired residents and small business owners in the winter months, the town became populated by totally unfamiliar tenants looking for low-paid work.  As such inevitable overcrowding ensued, with six people to a room being commonplace in many guesthouses. Efforts by local councillors to revise planning policy to provide more appropriate conditions have diluted this trend yet this remains a major issue for local government. While ‘everyone should have a roof over their head,’ Montgomery adds, ‘it is all about controlling the need.’

Integration, Montgomery argues, is something of a myth which is prevented from happening by a series of complex factors the most obvious being the simple restrictions in language. He argues that all evidence in Yarmouth illustrates the tendency for incoming migrants to congregate and organise themselves in a specific area within the host community. There are of course visible sub-divisions and cross-overs in this pattern, where Portuguese and Lithuanian residents for example overlap in  the contents of local stores which are put in place to serve the migrant population. One such store is the small chain of Marisa, selling Eastern European products alongside sardines, salt cod and pastries from Portugal. The shopkeeper Isabel has lived in Yarmouth since moving with her family from the city of Porto twelve years ago. Aside from the usual qualms she makes in broken English about the ‘time’ (tempo meaning weather) she speaks optimistically about prospects of money and work in the UK.

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Apart from the intermittent signs of migrant life such as an FC Porto scarf hanging in a bedroom window, the town is far from overrun and the most recent UK census indicates 6.2% of Yarmouth is made up of non-EU migrants, lower than that of Norfolk as a region and the UK as a whole, indicating a far removed story from the rhetoric of Derek and Irene safely garrisoned inside UKIP offices. The Portuguese-speaking population is also an interesting one with regard to its representation in local media. Examining fieldwork by social anthropologist and community worker at Great Yarmouth Borough Council Rob Gregory, many migrant workers in Yarmouth were, alongside native Portuguese and Eastern Europeans, from countries such as East Timour, Mozambique and Brazil yet categorised under the Portuguese community label. Research by Gregory also indicates a highly individualistic set of people within the migrant community, despite their physical presence in the town’s streetscape. Portuguese cafes and stores have sprung up independently in shops which would otherwise remain boarded up on the town high street, perhaps resulting in a disproportionately high representation in spatial terms within the town’s fabric.

However Yarmouth remains undoubtedly a particularly severe case, occupying the list of forgotten British town such as Blackpool, Skegness and Hastings each vying for lucrative national investment funds. The prospect of mass housebuilding to accommodate a rising population appears to be a particularly unpopular one in the face of fierce nationalistic sentiment in peripheral areas of the UK. All statistical evidence points to the overriding net benefit of migrants to an ageing UK population and if one thing is for absolute  certain it is that Yarmouth, like most of the UK, needs migrants in order to somehow shake off the dust from years of stagnation. The question is not perhaps integration but planning a framework within which different intertwined social groups, brought together through pure circumstance, can inhabit.

“People assert community, whether in the form of ethnicity or locality, when they recognise it in the most adequate meaning of expression for their whole selves” (S.Cohen)

Thomas Feary ADS2

Note: All names mentioned have been changed to protect the respective parties’ privacy.


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