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Immigration tension in east London

By Andrew Hosken
Today programme

The ethnic diversity of London can be seen on any of the capital's high streets

It is hard to envisage anything more English and typically east London than Upton Park.

There's West Ham Football Club and, nearby, the iconic statue of Bobby Moore holding the World Cup and supported on the shoulders of two of his West Ham and England team mates.

There's still a lively trade at the Queen's Market most days of the week, but the barrows have gone and new cultures dominate.

Long ago, it ceased to be a Cockney market and is even fairly unrecognisable from a later era when it was known as "Little Jamaica" due to the dominance of afro Caribbean business.

Nowadays, it is known mainly as an Asian market.

Neil Stockwell, a fruit and veg' stall holder for 35 years, revels in the cultural diversity of the area.

"I think this market is an absolute gem to the community. No one's worried whether you're Christian, Muslim or Jewish no one is worried about it what so ever," he says.

But he acknowledges that the immigration has brought huge changes to Newham.

"I live at Third Avenue, Manor Park London E12," he says.

Petticoat Lane market in the East End of London in 1904
The markets of East London have seen a radical change in the last 100 years

"When I was born there in 1962 I would say there were six coloured families in a street of 400 houses.

"Now me and my mum still live there and we are the last white family there. There are no other white families down our road.

"Twenty years ago, the trade was 99.9 per cent white/English. Now I'd say out of a thousand, I probably serve ten white people."

Majority view

In the latest citizenship survey carried out by the government, 77% of people said they wanted to see a cut in immigration.

I think sometimes politicians worry it gets into racism and that it plays into the hands of racists
Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham

In 2005, the Conservatives under Michael Howard campaigned on immigration as one of their key issues at the general election.

It remains an important topic for many, but according to Sir Andrew Green, Chairman of Migration Watch UK, immigration has become something of a political taboo.

"What is extraordinary is that the three main parties have their own reasons-rather cynical reasons -for not addressing it," he says.

"The Conservatives are worried about being called the 'nasty party', Labour have an appalling record and are losing the support of their traditional supporters and the Lib Dems, they simply want the ethnic vote in the cities without upsetting the vote in the countryside.

"So none of them want to talk about it and they've left the field wide open to the extreme right like the BNP."

'Real vitality'

Newham Council is trying to stabilise the population in areas where there is a significant turnover of residents.

Each year, about 14,000 new people arrive while approximately 22,800 people leave.

Much of that is due to immigration, according to Alan Craig a local councillor for the opposition Christian People's Alliance.

He is calling for a moratorium on immigration, adding, "I like the sheer social diversity - I think that different communities rubbing off and integrating - provide they are integrating - can offer things to each other I can see real vitality in that".

"But let's absorb the people we already have here and let's take a firmer approach to people learning English. That's what's absolutely so essential.

"So many communities don't speak English and they can't get on in our society unless they do speak English. So I would have a moratorium apart from real refugees and people escaping persecution. Those that are here now let's make sure they're learning English.'

Let down

We spoke to some established immigrants who thought there should be a tighter control on immigration.

"There should be some shelving - a blockage now on immigration," says Dave Singh, a British citizen and a luggage salesman in the market.

So many communities don't speak English and they can't get on in our society unless they do speak English
Alan Craig, Christian People's Alliance

He thought too few immigrants coming into Newham were qualified to work and were claiming benefits.

Tom Duncan, former editor of the Newham Recorder, blames politicians locally and nationally for letting down their guard on immigration.

"If you go back 30 years ago to the very beginning there were warning signs," he says.

"If the politicians had taken notice of then, perhaps we wouldn't have had so many problems and difficulties these days.

"That's not to say that East London has never been anything other than where people do in fact come in from outside. It's always been a place for immigrants but not on the extent of the last 20 years or so."

Open debate

Sir Robin Wales, the directly elected Labour Mayor for the borough, also feels that it is right to talk about immigration controls.

He has called on the government for extra powers in dealing with issues including enforcement of the minimum wage which would help deter local businesses damaging the local economy by using illegal immigrants.

He also thought it essential to hold an open debate on the subject of immigration.

"I think sometimes politicians worry it gets into racism and that it plays into the hands of racists," he told the BBC.

"We believe here we've got to deal with it, we've got to talk about it and we've got to face the racists down because the question of immigration, particularly in a borough like mine which is hugely diverse and the impact on a borough like mine not to discuss it would be a mistake.

"I just think the more you expose things to public debate the less bad it is and the more chance you've got of getting a sensible way forward."

The British National Party has made little headway in Newham, unlike the neighbouring borough of Barking and Dagenham.

Both local Labour and opposition politicians put this down to good community politics and encouraging open discussion on immigration.

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