Place images, East European migrants & the terms of belonging in a rural English village

By Helen Moore

In the weeks and months leading up to the May 2015 general election, numerous public and political commentators expressed unease about the disproportionate amount of press coverage and TV air-time devoted to UKIP and its leader, Nigel Farage, who used the opportunity to bring his inflammatory and well-rehearsed beliefs about the ‘uncontrolled’ levels of migration from the EU and elsewhere to a wider audience. One month on, election success for the Right & the proposed EU referendum mean that media reports about the impact of migration on the British economy, ‘benefits tourism’, and growing competition between migrants and British citizens for jobs, education, housing and healthcare services keep EU migration at the forefront of public consciousness.

However, findings from my PhD research on the classed and racialized relationships between rural English residents and East European migrant horticultural workers in a Worcestershire village that I call ‘Mayfield’ suggest that rural English residents form opinions about migration from Eastern Europe based on their local lived experiences, observations and ideas about the place in which they live, rather than right-wing tabloid media stories. The usual anti-immigrant discourses perpetuated by such publications did not emerge in my interviews and ethnographic fieldwork. Rather, I discovered a discourse of ‘fitting in’ where East European seasonal migrants’ perceived propensity for working hard at the village’s horticultural nurseries means that they adhere to the villagers’ classed concept of the ‘working village’.

East European Migration to Rural England

The English countryside is widely perceived to be populated exclusively by white Britons. However, since the enlargement of the EU in 2004 and 2007, significant numbers of East Europeans now live and work in rural areas of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, which historically have experienced little large-scale immigration. There is a small but important body of research, which has explored the exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities from rural areas of the UK (including that of my colleagues at Surrey, Sarah Neal and Jon Garland). However, there is very limited academic literature on the specific case of East European migration to the English countryside.

One notable exception is a working paper written by Leila Dawney (2008), who conducted research into the racialization of Central and East European migrants in Herefordshire. Dawney describes a familiar picture in the literature on rural racism, of the subjection of migrant ‘others’ to overt racism and discrimination by the local population. She observes discrimination borne out of ignorance rather than familiarity, and suggests that ‘the scarcity of visible ethnic minorities in rural communities means long-term residents’ ideas about ethnic minorities may be based on third party information, from the media and from other people, rather than from contact with ethnic minorities themselves’ (2008: 4). However, my study presents somewhat contrasting evidence. Mayfield residents’ opinions on East European migrants were formed mainly on the basis of their first-hand experiences and observations of the impact of migration on their local area, rather than wider national debates about immigration or sensationalist media notions of England being ‘full up’. I suggest that rural residents’ ‘place image’ of the ‘working village’ can help to explain this.

The Role of Place Images

In his study of council housing estates in Camden, North London, Paul Watt (2008) uses the concept of ‘place images’ to describe the way in which residents collectively think place into existence. Place images, Watt explains, ‘can result from stereotyping or from prejudices towards places or their inhabitants, and they are formed by the discursive practices of a range of groups and organisations including the local press, government and employers, as well as residents themselves’ (2006: 777). Therefore, the construction of place images is related to processes of distinction and the way that people ascribe identities to ‘others’ as well as themselves in relation to particular places or neighbourhoods.

In Mayfield, the place image of the ‘working village’ is operationalised in two ways. Firstly, the image relates to the village’s horticultural past and present; and secondly, it describes the residents’ perception of the village’s class identity. The village is described by many of its residents as a ‘working village’ on account of the horticulture industry and other trades and businesses operating there such as a hairdresser, a plumber, a thatcher, and a carpenter. Conceptualising the village as ‘working’ is the residents’ way of defining their village identity in relation to the numerous ‘picture-postcard’ villages, which have become tourist destinations popular with second-home owners in the neighbouring Cotswolds. The concept of the ‘working village’ also reflects the villagers’ sense that Mayfield is the ‘real’ countryside: its image is not that of quaint honey-coloured stone buildings and rolling hills, but farming, enterprise, and hard work. Of course, villagers are not homogeneous in terms of their length of residence in the village, social class status, and other demographic characteristics. Different groups employ different strategies to claim a sense of belonging in the village: through ties to history, to people, and to community activities. What they do share, however, is the knowledge that they live in a ‘working village’.

Seasonal migrant horticultural workers who live and work at the village’s nurseries fit in with the place image of the working village. Many village residents recognise and accept that migrant labour plays an essential role in keeping Mayfield’s horticultural industry afloat. ‘Brian’, 67, who has lived in the village for approximately 30 years explained:

My view, or my impression is that they’re actually keeping alive the horticultural traditions, horticultural heritage even. And without them the land around here would probably go fallow and this area would lose its distinctiveness.

Similarly, when discussing why the village’s horticultural nurseries almost exclusively employ East European migrants rather than recruiting from local labour pools, ‘Alice’, 23, told me that “migrant workers, especially Polish or European will work a lot harder [than English people]… the Polish will work, work and work”. Thus the villagers’ place image of Mayfield as a ‘working village’ is central to their acceptance of Eastern European migrants in the locality. This is not to say that the migrants have seamlessly integrated into English village life. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, village residents often make classed and racialized distinctions between the village ‘self’ and the migrant ‘other’. But nonetheless, place, and more specifically the place image of the working village, plays an important role in affirming who ‘belongs’ in Mayfield and the terms upon which that belonging can be secured.


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