What big challenges is West Midlands mayor Andy Street facing?

Andy Street gives his victory speech. 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 Europe’s cities.

The Centre for Cities, as regular readers will know, recently launched its new metro mayor data dashboards. These, if you’ve not had the pleasure, enable you to sort through some of the data on each of the newly en-mayor-ed city regions, and see how they compare to the national average. That, in turn, should give some insight into the kind of things clogging up the in-trays of the newly elected mayors.

So – let’s start with the big one. What kind of problems will be facing Andy Street in the West Midlands?

Well, for one thing, the region is facing a bit of a skills gap. The proportion of the population with no qualifications has fallen in recent years (it was as high as 20.7 per cent in 2001); but it’s still at 15.5 per cent, nearly twice the national average (8.3 per cent).

The region’s schools are performing below the national average, too. (Progress 8 is a way of measuring pupil progress in any individual school; the details don’t matter too much for our purposes.)

On the upside, it has significantly more apprenticeships than the national average – a result of the region’s industrial heritage, one assumes.

You can see that in its unusually high goods export numbers, too:

(Services don’t look so hot.)

The region’s earnings are rising steadily, but still lower than the national average:

The West Midlands has significant unemployment problems, too:

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Okay, let’s get onto the good stuff. One big area of responsibility for the new mayors will be public transport. In the West Midlands, one of Britain’s most car-based areas, there’s clearly a huge job to do on that score.

For one thing, the number of bus journeys made in the conurbation has basically been in free fall:

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So, better bus franchising should be high on the agenda.

More depressing, in some ways, is that the number of light rail journeys has basically flatlined.

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Anecdotally, they started climbing last year after the Midlands Metro was finally extended into Birmingham city centre.

The region’s air pollution is slightly higher than the national average:

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Which isn’t too bad, for an industrial area – but probably does suggest that getting people out of their cars might help.

So, to sum up: more skills, more trams, better buses and better schools please, Andy. Now get to work.

You can explore the data yourself here.

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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