How Corby’s welcoming nature made European migrants feel at home

Katarzyna Gutt, who moved to the UK from Poland and now works at Corby Primary Academy.
Katarzyna Gutt, who moved to the UK from Poland and now works at Corby Primary Academy.

“If they weren’t so nice I would have moved back.”

That’s the view of 36-year-old Katarzyna Gutt, who works as a dinner lady at Corby Primary Academy and a caretaker at Oakley Vale Community Centre.

Corby has the highest rate of non-UK born people in the north of Northamptonshire.

Corby has the highest rate of non-UK born people in the north of Northamptonshire.

Katarzyna is one of an estimated 16,000 non-UK born people residing in the town.

Latest Government statistics show almost one in four people - 23.2 per cent in fact - now come under that banner.

Katarzyna moved to the UK in 2005 from Poland’s capital Warsaw, one year after the A10 countries joined the EU, before moving to Corby in 2012 where she lives with partner Jacek, 36, daughter Aleksandra, 10, and son Jacek, seven.

She said the area’s cheap house prices and friendly people made the town an attractive place to settle.

Pawel Labaj moved from Poland for a better life.

Pawel Labaj moved from Poland for a better life.

She said: “I needed a place where we could live in peace after living in London.

“The majority of Corby is so welcoming.

“If they weren’t so nice I would have moved back.

“The houses are cheap compared to other places and you can get to London in an hour. Why wouldn’t we live here?”

Agata Reeves. NNL-180926-125600005

Agata Reeves. NNL-180926-125600005

The number of non-UK born people living in Corby has trebled in the past 10 years.

In 2008 it was estimated the number was about 5,000, or 8.6 per cent of the town’s population.

Another person who has made Corby his home is 33-year-old Pawel Labaj, who moved here from Krakow in 2005.

At first only able to say words in English such as hello and goodbye, Pawel chose not to take up work in a warehouse where Polish was the mother tongue.

He now works as a customer services co-ordinator for a logistics firm and says he loves living in Corby.

He said: “I wanted a better life.

“I could earn a lot more money in a short period of time.

“At first it [Corby] just felt like a bit of an industrial town but with the work that’s gone on it’s a lot more attractive.

“I’m loving it.”

With the majority of Corby’s migrant population coming from eastern Europe, a community within the community has grown.

Corby has its own Polish school and church, eastern European shops and restaurants and the town’s Savoy Cinema shows Polish films regularly.

Pawel is also an organiser for the Polish Event Club in Corby and says an International Children’s Day at Coronation Park in June had 3,000 visitors.

But not everybody who moves to Corby from eastern Europe finds life as easy.

Earlier this month Nicola Pell, chief executive of charity Nightlight, said about half of those living on the streets of Corby are eastern European.

And with the rights of EU citizens still not certain once Brexit takes place next year, there are obvious fears over some people’s future status.

Agata Reeves, 36, was among the first group of migrants to move to the UK from the A10 countries after swapping Chelmek in Poland for Britain six days after her home nation joined the EU in 2004.

The teaching assistant moved to Corby with UK-born husband Dominic in 2011, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of London.

She says she has concerns about the future of European shops in the town and the ability of her family to visit after Brexit.

She said: “I think Corby is growing but I am worried about some of the Polish shops.

“I like Polish food and always choose to eat Polish food but it could be too expensive for them to pay duty.

“I also think it could be difficult for my family to come here after Brexit if they have to get visas.”

A recent study by thinktank IPPR found that EU migrants play an important role in Corby’s economy, as the Scots did before them.

But it found the outcome of the EU referendum could put that in jeopardy.

That’s a view echoed by business consultant Mark McAllister, who has nearly two decades of experience of recruiting workers for some of Corby’s biggest businesses.

He said that nervousness around Brexit is already having an impact on the sector.

He said: “We’re undoubtedly getting fewer new jobseekers coming to Corby from Europe.

“But they provide the backbone for many of our local businesses in the recycling, food manufacture and warehousing sectors here in Corby.

“Without them, the Amazons of this world or any business reliant on unskilled labour will be in real trouble.

“Within 18 months to two years I think we’ll notice a real difference because there will be fewer workers available so people will be able to command a higher rate for unskilled or semi-skilled work.

“This will have a real knock-on effect on business and eventually on the consumer.

“The Europeans we meet are punctual, keen and incredibly hard-working and are a huge asset to the town.”

The rise in the number of non-UK born residents has had a similar increase in nearby Kettering.

In 2008 just 4.4 per cent of the population of the town wasn’t born in the UK, with that rising to 15.2 per cent in the latest Government statistics.

But other towns haven’t seen such big rises.

In Wellingborough, the proportion has increased slightly from 13.5 per cent in 2008 to 14.3 per cent now, and in East Northants the increase is from six per cent to 6.8 per cent.

Some politicians say the ease of which people can currently move to the UK from the EU is causing a burden on local services.

UKIP MEP for Northamptonshire Margot Parker, who lives in the Corby borough, said: ”Immigration has added so much to the country and many areas are richer for it.

“But uncontrolled mass migration into towns such as Corby does have an effect on our services and facilities.

“Indeed, when I was campaigning in the Corby by-election in 2012, I spoke to many people who had moved into the town from abroad who were themselves concerned with rising migration figures as it was affecting their job prospects and financial stability.

“When large population numbers are concentrated in one particular area – in this case in Corby – it creates pressure on waiting times for a doctor’s appointment, NHS waiting lists, affordable housing, school places.

“This lack of foresight and planning puts huge burdens on local services.”

She added that there needed to be a fair policy for those in the EU and the rest of the world and that leaving the EU ‘would play an important role in that’.