British curry houses are closing at a rate of two a week. Blame immigration policy

A chef cooks curry on London's Brick Lane. Image: Getty.

The smell of freshly baked naan, exotic spices and caramelised onion hit your nostrils as you walk through London’s vibrant Brick Lane. It is a familiar aroma throughout the country and not only one that many of us enjoy but also one that has become synonymous with British culture.

Our love affair with the curry started in the 1950s and the £3.6bn industry has grown exponentially in the last six decades, cementing itself into a defining feature of our national identity. Curry houses have become a bastion of multiculturalism and an example of globalisation at its best. They represent how fantastic immigration can be and the impact foreign cultures can have on our lives. Unfortunately, however, the industry is in serious jeopardy and unless steps are taken to save it, we might have to say goodbye to our beloved Indian restaurants.

Experts suggest curry houses are closing down at a rate of two a week, and employment minister Priti Patel warned this figure could easily rise to four a week in the near distant future. This decline isn’t because of a lack of demand or popularity. The problem the industry faces is that a large portion of the South Asian immigrants who set up these restaurants in the 60s and 70s are starting to retire, and there are no obvious replacements in the waiting.

Attitudes have changed among second and third generation British South Asians. When my grandfather came to Britain in the late 1950s, he worked in a restaurant and was adamant that his children and grandchildren go to university and seek more “academic” work. The current generation of British-Asians are experiencing the social mobility that their parents worked hard to provide. They don’t want to be chefs or work in the restaurants their predecessors did. The long hours and financial considerations aside, culturally, it is seen as taking a step backwards.

This means that as one generation bows out of the workforce, the next does not look to carry on the family business. With a lack of home-grown managers and skilled chefs, the obvious answer to the shortages is to turn abroad. But changes in immigration policy have made it increasingly difficult to do so.

The government is aware of the problem and has placed chefs on the “shortage occupation list”. But current requirements dictate that non-EU immigrants must earn a minimum of £29,570 to get a work visa, which is significantly higher than the average salary paid to those working in a curry house.

Enam Ali, the founder of the British Curry Awards, has urged the government to introduce a one-year visa scheme to save the country’s curry houses. Although this may work as a short-term fix, the structural problem of simply not having skilled chefs to keep the industry going over the next decade or so is a pressing concern.

An industry declining has obvious economic costs. But it's not only jobs at risk - we are also losing a significant part of our national identity. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook described chicken tikka masala as “a true British national dish”. The 12,000 curry houses in the UK are a much-needed symbokl of a willingness to accept other cultures into our ever changing identity.

When I last stepped into my local curry house, the owner told me that he feels he is the “pillar of the community”. As he put it, his curry house “brings people together over poppadums and mango chutney”. In the fast-paced world we live in, the local curry house is more often than not where families actually sit down together to converse and have a meal.

The plight of the curry houses is a reminder that immigration creates new industries, shapes our culture and offers us skills when we need them most. It may be fashionable to focus on the negatives of immigration, but if we are to save our curry industry, we must reassess our policies. 

This article previously appeared on our sister site, The Staggers.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.