Exports from British cities show the vast challenges we'll face in negotiating Brexit

"If I pull this serious face and hold my glasses in my hand, maybe they'll think I know what I'm doing." 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.

David Davis, our Brexiteering overlord extraordinaire, is in the business of negotiating our departure from the European Union.

Despite the fact that negotiations – led by David and his counterpart Michel Barnier – started only last week, they seem to have rather slipped down the agenda.

Admittedly, other things have happened, and we can’t expect the negotiations to ride top of the news agenda throughout the next 21 months or so until we actually get booted out of the EU in March 2019, but still: you’d hope we’d be able to sustain interest from at least the first week to the second.

In the long term, the key item on the negotiation agenda will be economics. Trade – and more specifically, exports – matter a great deal to us, and to our cities in particular.

If you were wondering about the subheading, here's the explanation. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities has some useful data here that gives a brief summative snapshot of the UK’s exports that we’ll have to try to protect – and expand on – in our deals with the EU and the rest of the world.

The key metric is exports per job: the value of the things we ship out – whether in terms of goods (stuff) or services (er, services) – relative to the number of people working to make those exports happen. In a very perfunctory way, the higher the number per job for a city, the better it’s doing in the exports market. 

Without further ado, here’s a snapshot of the country.

There is no data for Belfast, so I can’t make any shady backhanded comments about the DUP, which is a shame.

To break it down further, the average value of exports per job across the country in 2014 was £15,690. Here are the cities around the national average:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Cities as diverse as Hull, Edinburgh, Oxford and Southampton all cluster around that average figure, accruing around £15,000 in exports per job.

But, as ever, it’s the extremes that are most interesting.

The least successful cities in terms of exports are, largely speaking, in the North. The value of exports per job in York is just £3,710; in Doncaster it’s £5,410, £6,680 in Wakefield, £7,420 in Barnsley, and £8,160 in Preston – to choose a selection of the bottom ten.

The bottom ten exporting cities. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

That being said, there are outliers here, too. Nottingham – hardly a northern city – exported just £5,770 in goods and services per job in 2014. For Exeter, which is about as southern as you can get, that figure was £5,940.

Exports in these cities are clearly struggling. Such low numbers suggest fragile trading ecosystems, that may be highly susceptible to stormy economic conditions as we struggle to whittle through the umpteen minute details necessary to survive Brexit..

At the other end of the scale, some cities are exporting like there’s no tomorrow.

London’s exports per job come out at £23,470, while commuter-belt hotspots like Aldershot and Slough accrue £24,660 and £27,560, respectively.

Given that the average salary in the UK hovers idly around the £27,000 mark, this is starting to look like very good news. If the value of exports per job can be roughly equal to the average salary for one job, something’s probably going well.

The top ten cities by exports per job. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

But those aren’t even the highest figures.

Worthing, of all places, clearly shows its worth (sorry) with exports per job of £29,640. Out on top, and ahead by quite a way, is Sunderland: its exports were worth almost £5b in 2014, which breaks down to £40,650 per job.

That moment when Theresa May rushed to comfort Nissan, in the first months of her premiership after the UK voted to leave the EU, suddenly starts to make sense. The firm’s plant in Sunderland is the UK’s biggest car-producing plant, and exports at least 80 per cent of all the vehicles it produces.

Who's steering us through this Brexit, anyway? Image: Mario von Berg.

Paul Swinney of the Centre for Cities – and a Sunderland native – puts it in stark terms. “If you didn’t have Nissan and the supply chain, Sunderland would be the 12th lowest exporter, rather than the highest.”

And we’d be missing out on £5bn in exports.

More importantly, of course, if Nissan can't export the cars from the UK easily, they'll just go somewhere else to produce them. 

Most importantly of all, that will mean thousands and thousands of people losing their jobs. Which means thousands of devastated lives, hungry children, distraught families, and so on and forth.

Sunderland’s car factory, of course, is a world away from the vast pharmaceutical centre run by GlaxoSmithkline in Worthing, Britain’s second city for exports per job. What these figures show us is that the challenge faced by those making trade deals on our behalf is to secure trading systems that work as well for the cars of Sunderland as for the drugs of Worthing and the services of London.

And as much as anything else, these figures show what is increasingly clear about the UK – its divided nature. While some cities rake in billions from exports, others are barely breaking out beyond their own confines.

The deals we make as we go ‘out and into the world’ in the coming years face a formidable task: protecting the strong exports we already have pouring out of some of our cities, while trying to create the conditions for trade to flourish in the cities that have been left behind thus far.

It is impossible to overstate how high the stakes are throughout this process. 

Best of luck, David. 

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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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