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3 Years On, English Town Of Boston Reviews Brexit Vote


Next, we have a story about Boston - no, not the city in Massachusetts but its namesake in England. That town's vote of nearly 76% in favor of Britain exiting the European Union was greater than anywhere else in the U.K. NPR's Frank Langfitt paid a visit to see if anything has changed.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: A Brexit is still at least seven weeks away, but Sue Lamb has been feeling the effects for the last two years. Lamb runs a flower farm here in the county of Lincolnshire in the East Midlands, about a three-hour drive north of London, where workers from Eastern Europe strip the leaves off sunflowers and wrap bunches in cellophane to sell to British supermarkets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: Like other farms here, Lamb's relies on workers from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - all members of the European Union.

SUE LAMB: I hate to say it, but they're so reliable. They never let you down. We would be seriously stuffed without them.

LANGFITT: But fears about the impact of Brexit and the decline in the value of the pound have sent many of Lamb's workers back to the continent. Since the Brexit vote, she's lost 17 employees, nearly half her workforce. Business is good. Lamb planned a seven-acre expansion, which would have created another 10 to 15 jobs, but she's had to put it on hold.

LAMB: I think there's an awful lot of uncertainty, which means that you're very nervous about investing. You know, we need to know are we're going to get the labor. And our government at the moment just don't seem to comprehend that at all.

LANGFITT: Given her reliance on EU workers, you might expect Lamb had voted to stay in Europe. And you'd be mistaken.

LAMB: I voted to come out.


LAMB: Well, I never thought it was going to be the mess it is now. But generally, I always think we should know, you know, who's coming through our borders. I think a lot of things in the EU are corrupt and that didn't seem to be getting any better.

LANGFITT: Given the political chaos that's followed the referendum, I wondered - does she have second thoughts?

LAMB: No, I'd vote the same again.

LANGFITT: Why is that?

LAMB: Because I'm pretty stubborn (laughter).

LANGFITT: But this is actually going to hurt you on the labor front. It already is.

LAMB: Yes, yes, I think it is. But sometimes, you've got to have a bit of pain to get a bit of gain.

LANGFITT: Although some migrants have left Boston since the Brexit vote, thousands still live here. After work, some of them loiter in groups drinking on the sidewalks.

WENDY REED: Well, let's just say, if the curtains are staying, I'm not.


LANGFITT: Which has created a different kind of problem for Wendy Reed, who's chatting with a customer this afternoon in her bridal shop here.

REED: I come to work every day, and mostly I have to clean up something - cans - every day - bottles, everything. Mornings, there might be the odd body in the doorway regularly.

LANGFITT: What do you do?

REED: Call the chap next door because he's a big bloke, and he picks them up and lays them on here. And twice, they've still been unconscious when he's moved them and laid them down on here.

LANGFITT: Reed says local officials didn't fix the problem, so she took matters into her own hands. She took me outside to show me the solution, what the British call a porta-loo.

REED: This is all my land, and I decided to hire a toilet and put it on the side so they can use it instead of using my wall. We need toilets.

LANGFITT: In fact, Boston needs more of many things. After the global financial crisis, the British government slashed funding to Boston and other communities across the country. The policy, known as austerity, helped drive the Brexit vote. Brexit voters weren't just venting their anger at Brussels over migration but also London for the loss of funding for health care and education to manage the influx. Aaron Spencer is the leader of the Boston Borough Council. He said the town lost more than 20% of its budget.

AARON SPENCER: We need extra money in the town. We need more money for public safety, community engagement. We need more police on the ground. It just has to change.

LANGFITT: A group of pilgrims began their long journey to what became Boston, Mass., from this picturesque town of red-brick buildings along a river that rises and falls with the tides of the North Sea.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Love flows deeper than the river.

LANGFITT: On a weekday afternoon, a guitarist busks in the town square beneath St. Botolph's Church, whose medieval bell tower is visible from the ocean. Local officials like Aaron Spencer say the influx of migrants has affected the town, made some locals uncomfortable.

SPENCER: There is an undeniable impact of - you walk down the street and you hear a lot of different foreign languages. And as - if you've lived here all your life, then that can be quite intimidating.

LANGFITT: In fact, by 4:30 one afternoon, Eastern European men were already drinking along the streets, including one named Roman from the Czech Republic who cleans leeks for a living. Roman, who's knocking back a beer from Poland, insisted it wasn't just migrants who drink in public here.

ROMAN: English people like Polish beer, yeah? Everybody's the same, same, same.

LANGFITT: Gerrard Zemaiti is from Lithuania and works in a kebab shop across from Wendy Reed's bridal store. He says as more migrants have come to Boston, they've become communities unto themselves.

GERRARD ZEMAITI: People that first came here - they started to integrate because obviously there was more English population. Once there was an overwhelming amount of us, we stopped. We started entering shops, like this that literally - we have shopkeepers that don't even need to speak English.

LANGFITT: Given the tensions in town, councilor Aaron Spencer worries about a backlash against migrant laborers that he says Boston still needs.

SPENCER: And these economic workers who come here to serve us because we are the people who want cheaper products, so we create the problem for ourselves really. But what I don't want to do is build any more divide between us and them because it's tribalism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK, so we're now going to play a game. Who's here tonight?


LANGFITT: Leaders of Boston More In Common are meeting this evening. The group tries to build bridges amongst the town's various nationalities and cultures. But some committee members say even after the United Kingdom finally leaves the EU, Boston will still face a lot of problems. Julian Thompson chairs the group.

JULIAN THOMPSON: I don't think leaving will make any difference, but there's a massive amount of Eastern Europeans that have decided to stay here, but I can't see it changing. What we're looking for - the whole point of this - is not personal against Eastern Europeans. It's to wake up the government to recognize that Boston is blighted. It needs more money pumping into it.

LANGFITT: This conflict between a huge influx of immigrants, which led to the heavy Brexit vote here...


LANGFITT: ...Could this have been avoided?

THOMPSON: Yes, it probably could if - certainly this area, if we'd receive more help from government. If it recognized the problems and managed it better, then, yes, it could.

LANGFITT: Even here, in the town that backed Brexit more than any other, people say it didn't have to come to this. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Boston, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.