Factory towns: Which British cities still have big manufacturing industries?

SSI's steel plant in Redcar, which closed earlier this month. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Whenever the British are bemoaning the state of their economy, one refrain can be heard above all others: Why don't we make anything any more? A century and a half ago, Britain was the workshop of the world; now it has an economy run entirely for the benefit of estate agents and hedge fund managers. This seems to worry everyone a bit.

That question, though, is more misleading than you might think. Uncomfortably dependent on an over-mighty financial sector the British economy may be – but the idea we don't make anything any more is demonstrably nonsense.

According to the sector trade body EEF, Britain’s manufacturing sector still employs about 2.6m people. It provides around 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP, and 44 per cent of its exports. Indeed, it's only in the last couple of years the UK dropped out of the list of the world's 10 largest manufacturing economies for the first time. (It's now 11th.)

So where is all this making stuff happening? The greatest concentration of activity is in the Northern Powerhouse belt, as one might perhaps expect. Tthe manufacturing sector provides more than 10 per cent of jobs in more than a third of largest cities (24 of the top 65). In nine cities, it's more than 15 per cent.

Britain's biggest workshop of all – in terms of its reliance on the sector, if not its overall output – is Burnley, where in 2013 manufacturing still provided more than 22 per cent of all jobs. During the industrial revolution, the east Lancashire town was a centre for the wool trade; today, it's the aerospace industry.

Other towns and cities whose residents are still employed in manufacturing in large numbers include Derby (engineering), Sunderland (cars), Telford and Hull (all sorts of stuff). Here's the top 10:

One city that's a lot further down this league table than you might expect is Redcar – or rather, in this dataset, Middlesbrough, the label which is used here for the entire Teeside conurbation.

Redcar has been in the headlines a lot recently, after SSI announced it was closing its steel plant in the town, at the cost of 2,200 jobs. That’s the sort of number that will devastate any medium sized town.

In Teeside as a whole, though, manufacturing provides just 9.4 per cent of all jobs. Of the 65 cities in this table, manufacturing provides a larger share of employment in 27 of them. (The one ranked immediately below Middlesbrough, incidentally, is Bournemouth.)

So if Britain is still making things – if manufacturing still makes up a whole 10th of the economy – then why does nobody seem to know about it?

It's tempting to conclude that it's the old London-centric media bias at work. Just 2.6 per cent of jobs in the capital are in the manufacturing sector: on this measure, of the 65 major British cities in this dataset, it ranks 63rd. The lower end of the league table is littered with its satellites (Cambridge, Reading, Brighton, Oxford) too. Perhaps we don’t talk about manufacturing just because the government and media don’t see it.

But there's another reason too. Since the late 1970s, Britain's manufacturing output has increased – but the number of people working in the sector has fallen by more than 60 per cent. That’s partly a mark of the sector’s productivity, which has grown far faster than that of Britain’s service industries.

But it does mean that, where once upon a time, a quarter of British jobs were in the manufacturing sector, now it’s just 8 per cent.

This country does still make things. It just doesn’t need many worker to do it. 


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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