We have heard it said so often that it has virtually acquired Biblical status. The reason that 17.4 million British people voted to leave the European Union, so it is written in The Book Of Remain, is that they were ill-informed and hoodwinked by a gang of political shysters with a bogus pledge about NHS funding on the side of a bus.
However, it’s a safe bet that those who proclaim this to be the gospel truth will never have walked through Page Hall — the area of Sheffield singled out in a landmark Government report this week — let alone lived anywhere like it.
After a few hours spent here, your average Islingtonian or Hampsteadite might think a little differently.
Pressures: Slovakian Roma families in the Page Hall area of Sheffield, which was singled out in a landmark Government report this week
The Page Hall district in North Sheffield, which has absorbed 6,000 Roma and other Eastern Europeans, mostly since 2012
Because here they would find a group of people who aren’t bothered about what Nigel Farage has to say or give two hoots about the details of Article 50. Their only complaint about Brexit is that it will come too late.
Ask them why and they have countless reasons. For a start, they will point to the soiled mattress on the corner of Lloyd Street, or the abandoned sofa (with half-eaten portion of chips sitting on it) on Robey Street, or the doorless fridge blocking the pavement on Popple Street, not to mention the quite staggering volumes of filth and detritus in between.
An area where several cultures had rubbed along happily enough for decades has become, quite literally, a rubbish-strewn dump ever
Most are Roma migrants from Slovakia, attracted by the prospect of a better life thanks to Britain’s generous welfare benefits, free health treatment, housing and schools. The residents will also talk about the local schools trying to cope with a 15-fold increase in non-English-speaking children and about the groups of foreigners who hang around on street corners for hours shouting and spitting.
And then the same residents will tell you about the time, a few decades ago, when their own families came to live in Britain.
For these are immigrants, too. Woe betide the sneering Remainer who tries to call this lot stupid or racist — or both. ‘Anyone who comes here ought to work hard and respect the people who live here.
The reason that 17.4 million British people voted to leave the European Union, so it is written in The Book Of Remain, is that they were ill-informed and hoodwinked
However, it’s a safe bet that those who proclaim this to be the gospel truth will never have walked through Page Hall
A discarded sofa on Popple Street in Page Hall – where the roads are strewn with rubbish
‘If you don’t, you should lose your benefits and your perks. Simple as that,’ says local businessman Zulq Rehman, 36, pointing to the piles of rubbish which a Slovakian Roma family have dumped in the road opposite his own, immaculate house.
Out of the house next door appears his father, Aziz, broom in hand, ready for yet another clean-up. ‘Sometimes, you see them throwing away stuff in the middle of the night and you tell them not to and they just say the f-word,’ sighs this house-proud pensioner in a shalwar kameez and Pringle cardigan, who arrived from Pakistan 43 years and recently retired from the local steelworks.
His first chore every morning, he says, is clearing the mess from the doorsteps of all the family members who live in this road. However, he is one of life’s optimists. ‘These people will learn, though it may take a few years,’ he says, as a Roma couple walk past us.
They give a ‘no speak English’ shrug and walk on when I ask if I may talk to them. At the other end of the street, however, I can hardly get a word in edgeways as community radio disc jockey John Simpson, 47, gives me an impassioned explanation of where it’s all gone wrong.
‘When my parents came here from Jamaica in the Fifties, they came to do a job, they spoke English and we all had the Commonwealth in common,’ says the father-of-two. ‘Anyone who says Brexit is racist just doesn’t understand what’s happened.’
Comparing the recent migrants’ arrival to someone visiting another person’s home, he says they ought to ‘play by their hosts’ rules’. ‘Is that racist to say such things?’ he asks.
After a few hours spent here, your average Islingtonian or Hampsteadite might think a little differently
The story of Page Hall is one of many which feature in this week’s Government review of ‘opportunity and integration’ by former Whitehall mandarin Dame Louise Casey
An area where several cultures had rubbed along happily enough for decades has become a rubbish-strewn dump ever since a sudden influx of thousands of arrivals from mainland Europe
The story of Page Hall is one of many which feature in this week’s Government review of ‘opportunity and integration’ by former Whitehall mandarin Dame Louise Casey. Unlike some of the hand-wringing, punch-pulling reports on this most sensitive of subjects in recent years, the former charity executive and ex-Home Office anti-social behaviour ‘tsar’ offers a frank diagnosis.
She condemns the way that monocultural ghettoes have become established across parts of Britain — places in which too many migrant communities cling to the language, values and social norms of other societies. Dame Louise makes a number of recommendations, including an oath of integration for new arrivals, an oath of allegiance for all public office holders and a much greater emphasis on learning English.
Predictably, some of her findings have been criticised, most notably her repeated references to ‘regressive’ attitudes among some Muslim communities towards women.
She says: ‘There are numerous examples of local authorities, agencies and individuals bending over backwards to accommodate people from minority faiths or “different” cultures.’
By way of example, she tells of a head teacher who took down a poster about forced marriages ‘for fear of it upsetting the local community’, and trades union opposition to a Government proposal that public-sector workers who deal with the public should be able to speak fluent English.
‘Throughout the review,’ she goes on, ‘we have encountered repeated examples of regressive, discriminatory and harmful attitudes and behaviours being sanctioned by authorities in the name of tolerance and multi-culturalism.’
This was illustrated by the myopia of the Left-wing end of the panel on BBC1’s Question Time ten days ago, when the programme was broadcast from Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
Their usual pieties — more public spending, please; down with the evil Tories etc — failed to catch the mood of the audience. The biggest applause was for those wanting to press on with Brexit. The most surprising moment was when a middle-aged member of the public said: ‘Once upon a time, people came to this country and gradually integrated and were welcomed. We’re a very welcoming nation.
‘But when you get a massive influx of people all coming at the same time, that’s what people have a problem with. That’s when we get concerned when we go to the doctor and we can’t get an appointment.
‘Now people may turn round and say: “Oh no, no, that’s racist. But 18 million people — we knew what we were voting for.’
Horror of horrors, he was not some swivel-eyed loon. Eek! He was, in fact, a primary school teacher. And he had concerns about the lack of English among both pupils and parents.
Social media users burst forth with righteous indignation.
On Twitter, the man was branded as a ‘racist’. There were calls for him to be sacked. Several people demanded that he should be barred from working with children ever again. Others vowed that they would never set foot in horrid, Northern, Brexity Wakefield.
‘So glad I live on the South Coast & nowhere near Wakefield,’ tweeted one. And so on and so on.
Not that such people, I suspect, have a clue what it’s like to wake up in a place like Page Hall, where every day is rubbish day — minus the bins. But Dame Louise points out: ‘We saw the issues faced by the local authority and the community following a sudden growth in a Roma community in the city.’
Noting that almost all of the 6,000 new Roma and Eastern European arrivals in Sheffield were living in Page Hall, she says that more than half are aged under 17. ‘This is creating pressure on schools, with an estimated increase in Eastern European children from 150 to almost 2,500 in the space of four to five years.
‘A head teacher told us that educational attainment gaps against the Sheffield average are huge.’
So huge, in fact, that fewer than nine per cent of Roma children aged five to seven can read, compared with 80 per cent among the general population.
‘Community tensions are also arising over alleged practices such as fly-tipping and benefit fraud,’ the report adds.
Of course, Page Hall’s problems are not new. Three years ago, former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, who was then still a local MP, warned that its streets were a ‘boiling pot’ waiting to spill over into riots.
His comments led to a Channel 4 documentary about the area earlier this year. It investigated the reasons why Roma had left Slovakia to come to Britain. They found that they suffered overt discrimination and poverty in their homeland and it was understandable that they sought a better life abroad.
‘The Queen will sort things out,’ one man explained cheerfully as he prepared to board a bus for Britain and its fabled generosity.
Meanwhile, it is no surprise that Page Hall residents are keen to tell me their side of the story about life in what many of them now regard as a blighted, litter-filled Slovakian ‘ghetto’.
Shopkeeper Fahib Khan, 43, has been here for 15 years and tells me that he was most struck by the phenomenon of what some call ‘white flight’ (white people moving from inner-city areas such as Page Hall to the suburbs).
‘I used to have English customers all the time, but now it’s only two or three a day,’ he says.
Another man, who tells me his name is Prince Khan, says his family came to Britain from Pakistan and he works in a chemist’s.
He claims that despite the awful conditions most Slovakians seem to live in, there are some of them who drive around in shiny, new Hyundai cars, despite having no obvious source of employment.
P rince’s supposition is that they must be milking the benefits system or otherwise making money out of the black economy.
‘I have to get up and work all day to pay for that,’ he exclaims, pointing at a passing Hyundai driven by a man who may or may not be from Slovakia. His friend, Mark, a British plasterer, agrees.
‘Everyone used to get along here, but it’s a disgusting place now,’ he says. ‘People don’t want to stay here. An £85,000 house sells for £25,000 now.’
He has defiantly hung a huge England flag across the middle of his street. For good or for bad, the truth is that Mark is one of only a handful of white British people I meet in Page Hall during a day spent in the area. But whatever their backgrounds, residents’ complaints are invariably the same: the piles of rubbish (much of it with tell-tale Eastern European brand names) and the threatening sight of loitering groups of men and youths.
This is not to say that different nationalities don’t mix. For it is natural that they do in an area that has been a multi-cultural melting pot for decades.
Next I meet Abdullah, a Yemeni, working at one of several Slovakian grocery stores. Karim, a Kurd, runs another. Across the road, Hussein, whose family are from Kashmir, runs an Asian food store. A few doors down, Helena, a Polish housewife is cleaning her windows.
There are certainly plenty of people trying to improve the place.
Almost all of the 6,000 new Roma and Eastern European arrivals in Sheffield are living in Page Hall, more than half are aged under 17
Here are a group of people who aren’t bothered about what Nigel Farage has to say or give two hoots about the details of Article 50
The Pakistan Advice And Community Association, which was set up 27 years ago to help new arrivals from that country, now covers the entire ethnic spectrum.
Several staff tell me they are dismayed by the findings of the Casey Report. ‘It feels so out of date when things are getting better,’ says one woman who does not wish to be named.
This place is also home to the Sheffield Roma Network, which is trying to promote integration from the bottom up, with free English lessons for Roma families, healthcare classes and screening for TB (which is higher than average in the Roma community).
They now field a football team in the Doncaster Senior League, Roma United, and have recently organised sessions with the local police to explain to Roma car-owners that if they don’t have motor insurance — which many do not — their cars will be impounded.
I meet Tomas Tancos, 19, whose family arrived in Britain from Slovakia in 2004, meaning that he has gone right through the English education system. He has now completed a business administration apprenticeship here and helps to run the Roma activities.
‘We are trying to integrate,’ he says, but he acknowledges that a lack of English is the main barrier to employment.
At Sheffield City Council, Jack Scott, Cabinet member for community services, tells me the council faced substantial challenges four years ago when there was a sudden mass arrival from Eastern Europe.
‘It takes time for services to adjust,’ he says. ‘We’re not hiding the problems, but they are improving.’
He welcomes the Casey Report, agrees with its emphasis on the primary importance of all people moving here learning English and admits that one of the greatest problems is the litter.
Nearby, I spot a council scrap van at work, but it can only achieve so much. No sooner has the abandoned doorless fridge been picked up than another old television set takes its place.
With the best will in the world, it’s not surprising that so many locals have run out patience.
Further down Page Hall Road, at the Halal Fisheries chip shop, the door is locked and the windows painted over.
It used to belong to Colin Barton, who hit the headlines following David Blunkett’s ‘boiling pot’ remark after he claimed that a man had walked into his shop offering a Roma baby for sale — price: £250.
He recalls: ‘I thought he was trying to sell me a phone and then he just held up this baby.’
Police failed to find any evidence of a missing baby, but Colin, now 57, says that the volume of anti-social behaviour — some of it too graphic for a family newspaper — eventually drove him to shut up shop.
He has since opened a new chip shop in Nottinghamshire and says he’ll never return to Sheffield. ‘Page Hall isn’t just another country now — it’s another planet.’
Colin Barton deeply resents any charge of racism, not least since his wife is Asian, as are many of his friends. Certainly, the name of his shop — Halal Fisheries — was about as multi-cultural as it comes in South Yorkshire.
So what is his solution? Will Brexit — which he keenly supported — help sort things out?
‘It’s too bloody late. You can’t lock the stable door when the horse has gone. I wouldn’t kennel my dog in that place now.’
His views are harsh — frankly, too harsh — and we should all pray he’s wrong. But, that said, it’s difficult not to have a certain sympathy with him for feeling the way he does.