It’s a KIBS thing: Are some British cities going backwards?

Knowledge-intensive business services, 1890s style. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

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

We haven't talked about KIBS in a while, have we? Let's talk about KIBS.

"Knowledge Intensive Business Services" are, basically, the high-skill, high-value bit of the modern economy. In short, you can break an economy up into extraction, manufacturing, agriculture, and services. It's the latter that generates most of the wealth in advanced economies, but not all services are equal: there is much more money to be made in accountancy, say, than there is in retail. At any rate: if you want your city to be rich, you generally want more of those delicious KIBS.

So this, on the whole, is a bit worrying:

In the first half of the decade, KIBS fell as a share of the economy in no fewer than 23 of the 63 cities in our database. And not all of these cities are places you'd associate with economic problems, either: they struggling cities like Dundee, Swansea and Burnley, but also richer ones like Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Milton Keynes.

The decade started rather bumpily, so I checked if this as just a recession thing by checking if the pattern held if you started counting in later years. Starting the clock in 2013, things were different. Now there were 27 cities where the KIBS had shrunk. Right.

So what's going on? Couple of theories. One is that they've lost some good jobs: in the smaller of these economies (Slough, Worthing), the loss of one significant company is probably enough to make a noticeable dent in the figures. Another possibility is that they haven't lost KIBS jobs – might even have gained them – but that other, generally less productive sectors have grown faster.

What is clear is that there is, perhaps surprisingly, no obvious link with incomes. Check out this scatter graph which plots the change in KIBS with the change in weekly wages. There is, and I'm being charitable here, no correlation whatsoever. It’s a correlation coefficient of 0.04, which is basically invisible.

Click to expand.

 

Which suggests that maybe seeing the share of your economy devoted to KIBS shrink by 2 per cent really just doesn't matter that much. Perhaps there are other well-paying jobs replacing them, which aren’t classed as KIBS because there’s a quirk of the data. More likely, I suspect, there’s a mismatch between the two datasets: the KIBS one shows what happens inside a city’s economy, whereas the wages one includes people who live there but work elsewhere. What happens in Worthing is probably less important to its residents than what happens in London.

And yet, and yet... Here's another scatter graph showing weekly wages against KIBS. Unlike the last one, though, this isn't change over time: it's the figures for a single year, 2015.

Click to expand.

That very definitely is a correlation: a coefficient of 0.66, which is pretty bloody strong.

So: KIBS-heavy cities do still do a lot, lot better: perhaps the changes in that earlier dataset are simply too small to have much of an impact.


The lesson here seems to be that a city can see the share of its economy devoted to high-value business services shrink a little without consequence. But if it starts dropping like a stone, people are going to get a lot, lot poorer.

Anyway, to sum up, I'm sure Brexit will be completely and utterly fine.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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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