In skills and productivity, the Northern Powerhouse looks more like eastern Europe

Sofia, Bulgaria: A dead ringer for Sheffield. Image: Getty.

One of the most striking findings of the Centre for Cities' recent Competing with the Continent report is that most UK cities lag behind European counterparts in terms of productivity. That's a trend particularly evident in the Northern Powerhouse region, where all 21 cities are below the European urban productivity average of £56,300 Gross Value Added per worker, and all but two (Leeds and Warrington) are among the 25 per cent least productive places in the continent.

Indeed, as the map below shows, productivity in northern cities is closer to that of places in the east of Germany and eastern Europe, than to that of cities in the Greater South East of the UK, most of which perform above the continental average.

This highlights the scale of the task ahead for the Government in achieving the primary aim of the Northern Powerhouse initiative – building a powerful network of cities capable of counterbalancing London’s weight and influence.

The outlook for Northern cities appears even more challenging when we take a more detailed look at how their economies compare to European counterparts. Here are three big conclusions that can be drawn from our data:

The Northern Powerhouse’s largest cities are being out-performed by most western European cities.

Leeds is the most productive place in the north, but is ranked 239th out of 330 places in Europe with an average economic output of £46,600 per worker. That's 22 per cent lower than in Essen (£59,470 per worker), the European city which has the most similar economic structure to Leeds, and closer to Poznan (£47,300).

Manchester fares even worse, with an average economic output of £43,600 per worker – significantly lower than its most similar European counterpart, Hamburg (£67,100), and roughly the same productivity as Vilnius (£43,800).

Most northern cities are home to significantly more low-skilled residents than European competitors.

One of the aims of the Northern Powerhouse initiative is to secure more investors and businesses for places in the region, whether nationally or internationally. The availability of a skilled labour force is a key factor in where firms choose to locate.

Yet northern cities are performing poorly on this front compared to competitors across western and eastern Europe. All northern cities bar York are home to a higher share of low-skilled residents (i.e. those with less than 5 good GCSEs as a highest level of education) than the European city average (25 per cent).

In Hull, 43 per cent of residents are low-skilled, ahead of Liverpool (40 per cent) and Leeds (32 per cent). This is similar to the share of low-skilled residents in Polish cities, and more than twice as high as in cities in eastern Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria:

Higher labour costs in UK cities could potentially make cities in Eastern Europe more attractive to firms to invest in than Northern Powerhouse cities.

Labour costs in UK cities are roughly three times higher than in Poland and Hungary, and about six times higher than in Bulgaria. So while northern cities are home to large shares of low-skilled workers, their relatively high labour costs mean that they are not well-placed to compete with eastern European cities for globally mobile low-skilled jobs.

Instead, Northern cities need to focus primarily on becoming attractive places for high-skilled businesses – particularly in the knowledge-intensive services sector – if they are to be successful.

It’s all about skills

These findings demonstrate the scale of the challenge that national and city leaders face in helping northern cities overtake eastern European counterparts, as well as start to catch up with places in the south east of England. Above all, they highlight the central importance of improving skills in northern cities at all levels – from early years to GCSE attainment, academic and vocational qualifications. 

Doing so will be vital in ensuring places across the north are well-placed to compete with European counterparts for the high-value businesses and jobs which offer the best prospects of long-term growth and prosperity.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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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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