Three years ago, the town of Boston in Lincolnshire hit the headlines when locals rioted after England were knocked out of the European football championships.

Now Boston is getting attention for another reason: it has been officially identified as a migration hot spot.

At the last census in 2001, 55,750 people were living in Boston with relatively few migrants. Now, with more than 15,000 migrants, mainly Portuguese but also a growing population of Poles and other eastern Europeans, the housing, policing and education services are under intense pressure.

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The town’s council, which believes that the total population could be between 70,000 and 80,000, is – in common with many other local authorities – demanding “fairer” funding from Whitehall to cope with the influx.

“Local authorities up and down the country are facing pressures and it would be fair to say that until recently, recognition by government officials of the scale and growth of economic migrants in many areas has been slow,” said Mick Gallagher, chief executive of Boston borough council.

Tony Lake, Lincolnshire’s chief constable, has warned that without additional money his force will not be able to cope. “We are not crying wolf,” he said. “The situation is very fragile. Without extra funding we will not be able to provide the service that people rightly expect.”

Duncan Attwood, 34, a supervisor at a local poultry factory, has seen at first hand the changes brought about by migration. “Ten years ago, when I first started on the production line, there were no foreign workers at all,” he said.

Now they come from all over the world. First it was the Portuguese, now it’s mainly people from eastern Europe – Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Russians. On the bus in the morning the only language you don’t hear is English. But I don’t have a problem with it – nowadays I have a lot of Polish friends.”

Between May 2004 and September 2006, 1,600 foreign workers registered in Boston for every 10,000 working-age locals, the highest concentration in Britain. In 2000 about 5% of casual labourers in Boston were said to be foreign. Now the figure is 75%.

The council is trying to improve community relations by offering language courses to ensure that more people learn English and can therefore integrate. Other measures include “myth-busting” leaflets, “welcome packs” for new arrivals and continental markets celebrating the range of cultures in the town.

These measures, however, eat up scarce resources and some locals fear they will be left with the bill for their migrant population if Whitehall refuses to cough up more funds.

I would be outraged if council tax went up or services were cut to accommodate more migrants,” said James White, 35, a Boston property developer. He was clear where he would lay the blame. “I have no particular problem with people coming over and working hard – it’s an opportunity for them,” he said. “It’s the government that is at fault.” LAST week the Local Government Association (LGA) reflected such concerns when it intervened on behalf of its members to demand more funds from Whitehall to cope with increasing migration. Its argument was that government population figures based on the 2001 census do not reflect the fast-changing reality on the ground and that public services are coming under pressure.

Simon Milton, the LGA’s chairman, called for a £250m fund from the government for councils as a “pragmatic and proportionate” response to the crisis.

It would be easy to dismiss the claims as the self-interested whingeing of councils that had misjudged their budgets. Cynics would also note that the new funding settlement with central government is set to be fixed in the coming weeks. But the near-universal nature and similarity of the complaints make them credible.

In Corby, Northamptonshire, another hotspot identified by the LGA, Chris Mallender, the council’s chief executive, said he would see a budget shortfall of £200,000 this year, rising to £400,000 in three years. The council has already begun selling land to meet the difference, he said, and warned that council tax bills might have to rise by 8% if more government funds were not forthcoming.

“This year we received a grant for only 100 extra residents while the figures show there are about 1,900 extra migrants from the EU accession states,” he said, pointing out that the electoral roll had increased by nearly 1,500 in the past two years.

Westminster council in London, which absorbs more than a third of incoming migrants, complained that nearly 24,000 people were missed by official statistics. It was a pattern reflected around the country.

In Merthyr Tydfil, with 1,500 new migrants (making it one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in Wales), officials warn of “a major impact on our frontline service delivery particularly in areas such as housing, council tax and housing benefit”.

But Harvey Jones, the council leader, put a positive gloss on it. “School rolls are falling and there are plenty of places for immigrant children,” he said. “As far as we are concerned it isn’t an issue. We have lost more than 10,000 residents in the past two decades and we want to revive and regenerate the town. Immigrants can be part of the solution.”

Jones’s remarks reflect a widespread belief, both among councils and many members of the public, that inward migration has been beneficial to Britain in an economic sense. The councils put a figure of £40 billion on immigrants’ annual contribution to the economy.

While some economists dispute this analysis, the public seem to agree. An Ipsos Mori opinion poll published in The Sun newspaper yesterday revealed that 48% of people believed immigration was good for the country.

However, it remains an issue of concern with many wondering if the government has control of the speed and extent of migration after a series of embarrassing mistakes last week. In the same poll, 51% of respondents thought the government had been dishonest about the scale of immigration and 82% were not confident that public services could cope.

The issue is at the top of the political agenda, with the government on the back foot. THE week began embarrassingly when Peter Hain, the work and pensions secretary, was forced to admit that the government had underestimated the number of migrant workers in Britain, and thus understated the extent to which they have been taking the jobs created in Britain under Labour.

Previously published figures suggested that in the past 10 years 800,000 new jobs had gone to foreign workers, out of a total of 2.7m, just under 30%. The new figures show that foreigners had taken 1.1m out of 2.1m jobs created since 1997: more than half.

Worse, the same figures showed that in the past two years – with large numbers arriving from eastern Europe – the number of UK-born workers in jobs had dropped by 270,000, while employment among foreign workers had jumped by 540,000.

Later it was further claimed that official statistics put the number of foreign-born workers at 1.5m. The impression was that nobody had control of the figures.

There could be more embarrassment to come. Figures obtained by The Sunday Times from the Office for National Statistics show that even the new figures are an underestimate and that 80% of new jobs have gone to foreigners under Labour. In the past five years the number of foreign workers has risen by 1m, while the number of UK-born employees has dropped by 500,000.

The error in the figures, said to have been discovered by a new analysis of the official Labour Force Survey (LFS) using a “revised methodology”, appears to have arisen from simple mathematical errors by officials. But it confirmed the murky nature of all official statistics for immigration.

Karen Dunnell, head of the Office for National Statistics, says all the figures for the number of foreign workers in Britain should carry a health warning because they are likely to be understated. Apart from the problem of illegal foreign workers, the LFS does not cover people living in “communal establishments”, including hostels, hotels and boarding houses, or in mobile homes. Many migrant workers live in such accommodation.

There is a wider problem associated with the counting of foreigners in Britain. Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, has described the International Passenger Survey, the main method of recording the number of foreigners coming into and out of Britain, as “hopelessly inadequate”.

About 300,000 people are interviewed each year, arriving and leaving Britain, roughly one in 500, from which the figures are grossed up. But the sample includes a relatively small number of migrants and fails to take into account shifting patterns of migrant arrivals.

The government is commissioning a new system, called “e-borders”, in which all arrivals and departures will be electronically recorded. But the IT orders for the new system are being placed only now; even if it is ready on time it will not be operational until 2014.

The confusion over the figures came at a bad time for Labour, with Downing Street aides expressing intense irritation at the “cockup” in a week when David Cameron had decided to highlight the immigration issue.

The Tory leader has repeatedly poured scorn on Gordon Brown’s pledge, made at his party conference, to provide “British jobs for British workers”, after Labour has presided over record levels of immigration in the past 10 years.

Polling for The Sunday Times by YouGov shows that even before Cameron’s decision to raise the temperature on immigration, the Tories enjoyed a substantial lead of 20 points on the issue.

This is an incredible turn-around for the Tories on an issue that had become “electorally toxic” for them. Cameron’s predecessor, Michael Howard, had been accused of pandering to the right and of “little Englander” politics when he made it a central issue in the run-up to the 2005 election. The party was roundly defeated.

In his speech, Cameron noted that until the 1980s Britain was a “sending country”, with net emigration to other parts of the world. Now we had become a “receiving country”, with immigration “on a speed and scale we have rarely seen before”.

That would mean, with the Office for National Statistics projecting annual net migration into the UK of 190,000 a year, coupled with higher birth rates among the migrant population, that immigration contributed 70% of the projected rise in the UK’s population from 60.6m now to 65m by 2016 and to 71m by 2031.

Such an increase, more than double the rise in population of the past 20 years, was, said Cameron, “on a different scale” from what had been seen before. Such a rise in population would, he said, undermine Britain’s quality of life, its “general wellbeing”, putting pressure on the national infra-structure, water and energy, as well as increasing the demand for housing and hard-pressed public services.

A Tory government, he said, would have an explicit population strategy, directly controlling immigration by setting lower limits for arrivals from outside the European Union, policed by a new border police force. It would also act indirectly on immigration by tackling the government’s “social failure”, the 5m working-age adults who are on benefits, trapped because of their inability to read, write or offer other skills to employers.

C a m e r o n received praise from an unexpected quarter. Trevor Phillips, head of the new Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “For the first time in my adult life I heard a party leader clearly attempting to deracialise the issue of immigration and to treat it like any other question of political and economic management.”

In response, the government has been shifting its stance. Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, said restrictions on workers from Bulgaria and Romania, the latest members of the EU, would now remain in place until 2011. Unlike other new EU members from eastern Europe, notably Poland, officially permitted economic migrants from Romania and Bulgaria have been limited to about 20,000.

Brown has adopted Tory proposals for a unified border police force, bringing together customs and immigration officers. A new Australian-style points-based system for immigration, giving priority to the highly skilled and educated and to entrepreneurs, will start early next year.

Brown’s aides dismiss Cameron’s call for an annual limit on net migration as unworkable, given that Britain cannot prevent most EU citizens from moving here. They emphasise, however, that the government has allowed for a rising population in its plans.

Whitehall departments were told to budget for a population of between 64m and 66m by 2017 in their negotiations with the Treasury leading up to last month’s comprehensive spending review. POLITICIANS on both sides know that this subject requires serious attention. Not only did the opinion poll published yesterday reveal that immigration and race relations were now voters’ top priority, but events in Italy will have shown how quickly problems can escalate.

Growing racial tension caused by the attribution of nine murders to Romanians exploded last week after an alleged murder of an Italian woman by a Roma gypsy on the outskirts of Rome. The squatter camp in which the suspect was living was broken up and officials elsewhere in the country made the first applications to use new laws to expel foreigners who pose a threat to “public security”.

In Britain, such flare-ups have so far been localised and have not escalated. After the 2004 football riots in Boston, local officials denied that there had been a racial element to the disturbances, even though England had been knocked out of the competition by Portugal.

There have been no big problems since, but there are tensions below the surface. Last year one of the town’s schools faced claims that local children were being turned away because it had so many pupils from migrant families.

This is the way resentment builds. The risk is that people will come to think of immigration as merely filling Britain’s already crowded island and taking jobs that native workers could have done. Then immigration will bite the government hard.