Did you know that more than two per cent of Edinburgh’s population is Polish? It’s 2.7 per cent to be precise, with a population of some 13,000.
I knew there must be a fair few to support the Polish bakeries and delicatessens, and the Catholic cathedral has long enjoyed packed pews every Sunday since Poles were free to travel to the UK after Poland joined the EU in 2004. But I didn’t realise it was as many as 13,000 – and that’s just those who live here.
Some estimates put the Polish population in Scotland as high as 50,000 (it’s more than 500,000 across the UK) and more than a few will travel to Edinburgh for work.
One, Katarzyna, is a highly intelligent and motivated mother-of-two who travels from West Lothian to work here every day and is in high demand as a cleaner and house-keeper. She works for us one afternoon a week.
Her children are bilingual Scots and she is working hard to give them a secure upbringing and an excellent education. As she puts it, she wants to make sure they don’t have to clean for a living. Her husband works in the building trade.
She is a veritable whirlwind and there are many like her; both economically and culturally her family enriches the communities of which they are part. What she doesn’t do is expect the state to pick up the tab; work for her is as much a matter of pride as necessity.
When people like Katarzyna first started coming here after 2004, I marvelled at seeing so many Polish number plates around town because only 15 years before the Iron Curtain made that impossible.
It might be hard for people under the age of 35 to appreciate what life was like in the Cold War era and when I went to Germany with the army as a reporter in 1984 to cover the biggest armed mobilisation since the war the Soviet threat was very real indeed.
But even as Communism was collapsing only five years later it was impossible to predict just what an impact Eastern Europeans would have on British communities.
By 2005, I was certainly one of the beneficiaries, with Polish tradesmen helping to renovate the wreck of a house we’d just bought. I thought then and still think now the Eastern Europeans, and indeed the vast majority of incomers, have brought enormous benefits to this country.
A young Slovakian researcher by the name of Marek, now married to a Scot and firmly settled here, is one of the brightest people I’ve worked with.
But it wasn’t everyone’s view. Discussing the Polish influx some years ago with the late Granton councillor Elizabeth Maginnis I was surprised she was much less enthusiastic than I.
She explained that for people in her ward the Poles represented a workforce which both took up jobs locals should have filled and depressed wage levels at the same time. I didn’t share her view – it was difficult and expensive in the 90s to find good tradesmen.
Born and bred in north Edinburgh, Elizabeth was a great champion of her people right up till her early death in 2008. As the driving force behind the Waterfront development she would have been deeply saddened by what has happened, or not happened, there.
But on this issue I still believe she was wrong. Economic migrants such as the Poles then, those Romanians and Bulgarians who might come here now, the Pakistanis and Ugandan Asians before them, and before that the Irish, the Huguenots and the Jews, have one thing in common; by definition, they all had get up and go.
Each wave of immigration has brought something new to this country and I believe we are the better for it. That minorities now make up a third of the UK population is something of which we should be proud.
But tonight to Edinburgh comes Ukip leader Nigel Farage for a Euro election rally of the rag-tag Scottish end of his party, which opponents characterise as anti-immigrant. They are anti-EU certainly, but then again only 43 per cent of Scots would definitely vote to stay in and about half of them support a renegotiation of our membership conditions.
I have no doubt that Elizabeth Maginnis would have had no truck with the likes of Mr Farage, but on immigration many people in under-privileged communities fear the impact of large numbers of foreigners. It is not a simple left v right issue. If you have any doubts about that, the recent YouGov survey of more than 2000 people in Scotland for the Oxford University Migration Observatory should dispel them.
While the figures indicated more tolerance than in England and Wales, they still showed that 58 per cent of Scots supported a reduction in immigration (and worryingly one in ten regard English people as immigrants).
It also revealed that 32 per cent believed immigration to be bad for Scotland, which must therefore include a large number of people who vote for centre-left parties. And Scotland doesn’t have anything like the same size of ethnic communities as in the south, definitely not in Edinburgh.
It is clearly a populist issue, which is one reason why UK government policy has been to tighten entry; something which is now causing unforeseen problems in areas such as higher education and is the reason it can now take longer to get through the airport.
As much for administration and budgeting as anything else, there needs to be some immigration control, but I’m certainly no fan of Ukip. Whether it is just demanding tighter controls or opposed to more immigration in general is to me immaterial; Ukip is a democratic party with legitimate views and I just don’t like what it says or how it says it.
But I believe passionately it has a right to say it, and I find the threat by a not inconsiderable number of extremists to disrupt his event at the Corn Exchange disturbing. They have every right to demonstrate, but to attempt to silence Mr Farage has echoes of the kind of attitudes Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and East Germans rejected in 1989.
The scenes which led to Mr Farage having to seek refuge in a police van on his last public appearance in Edinburgh sent out a poor message about this city. For that moment it seemed this place was one where tolerance, and good humour, were sadly absent.
Those planning tonight’s protest say they want to send a message to Mr Farage that he is not welcome in Scotland. What is not welcome in Scotland is any attempt to deny those who believe in democratic debate the right be heard.
BRIGHTER TIMES FOR CITY’S UNEMPLOYED
New analysis of unemployment in Edinburgh paints an optimistic picture, even where those on the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) are at their highest.
According to the latest Economy Watch report, by the end of March, the Forth ward in north Edinburgh has the most people claiming JSA, at 4.8 per cent of the working age population. But this was down from 6.4 per cent in the same month last year.
Next is Portobello/Craigmillar at 4.5 and Leith at 4.4. At the other end of the scale, Meadows/Morningside stands at only one per cent.
The overall JSA figure for the city is static at 2.7 per cent and from these figures it’s glaringly obvious the employment challenges are at their most intense along the coast.
If ever there was a reason to improve transport links this is it; employers will not go where links are more difficult and those needing work are less likely to travel if the journey is awkward or costly.
So indications that Henderson Global, the firm behind the
St James Quarter, is prepared to invest in extending the tram to Leith is an extremely positive development.
A private investor pumping money into public infrastructure to enhance its original investment is precisely what the city needs and the more partnerships like this which can be explored the better.
The full scale of the challenge is illustrated by the fact that there are still around 39,000 working age people in Edinburgh on benefits, about 11 per cent of the population. While still high, it compares well with the Scottish average of just over 15 per cent.
Further, the total number of people in work actually fell 1.1 per cent in the year till the end of 2013, although that could be explained by rising retirement.
Seeing the cranes go up at
St James or down at Haymarket should help create a greater sense of purpose and urgency, and in the battle for sustainable employment it can’t come soon enough.
The same Economy Watch data shows that the rate of business start-ups supported by Business Gateway was 36 fewer in March this year than last. The rate of business incorporations is around half that of UK competitor cities such as Manchester.
Foreign and domestic investment projects are down on last year, too. The referendum could be part of the problem, and the closer the polls have become the more difficult it is to predict the result.
This time last year the gap was so wide a No vote was seemingly inevitable but that’s far from the case now.
One property expert I know has recently returned from a tour of potential investors from the south-east and five out of six separate meetings resulted in rejection because of the uncertainty. The sixth was a maybe.
That is not to say these organisations will not invest in the event of a Yes vote, it’s just they don’t know what they’re dealing with either way. Hopefully the investment tap will be turned back on once the result is known in September, whatever it is.
Indoor sport facilities a must
Congratulations to the 1700 children who ran, swam and biked their way around St Augustine’s school this week as part of the Commonwealth Games build-up.
And full respect to the teachers involved in co-ordinating such a massive event. I have difficulty enough helping to herd 20 or so mini rugby cats on a Sunday morning.
Thankfully the weather was kind and the kids were able to enjoy a day away from the classroom. So what’s the follow-up? And what’s going to happen in winter when the Games are a fading memory?
No one-needs reminding what a miserable place this can be for sport in winter and it’s no surprise if kids want to curl up with an iPad mini rather than run about in the driving sleet.
Indoor facilities in every community are a must, with enough qualified instructors to make sure the time is well spent. Physical activities should be every week, all year round, ever year, with or without big Games in the summer.