Where does London end?

Epsom racecourse: not in London, probably should be. Image: Getty.

"Where London ends" is one of those topics that can keep Londoners arguing happily with each other for hours. Is Romford in London? (Technically yes, despite being the most Essex place in the universe.) Watford? (Nope, despite being on the tube.) Epsom? (We paid good money to live in leafy Surrey – are you mad?)

Officially the city limits lie at the Greater London boundary, but outside the realm of politics this is a pretty meaningless distinction. In places, that boundary runs down the middle of suburban streets. In others, it's a good two or three miles out into open countryside.

More importantly though, it's arguable whether continuous urban build up is really the best measure of a city. Picture an area whose residents work in London, use its transport, and rely on its services. Should its relationship to the city really be defined purely by whether or not you can walk from there to Charing Cross without catching sight of a field?

Barney Stringer is a regeneration expert at Quod, who writes a blog about these sort of issues. A few days back, he wrote a post headlined, "Is London too small?”, which includes this rather lovely map:

What's clear is that there's an inner ring of satellite suburbs that are, in economic terms, basically dependent on the metropolis: towns that would, in the US version of the jargon, be referred to as “exurbs”. They include contiguous Surrey suburbs like Epsom, Esher and Weybridge; dormitory towns like Sevenoaks, Beaconsfield and Potters Bar; and the entire set of The Only Way is Essex, most of which is either on the Central Line or will soon be on Crossrail.

Beyond that, the size of the commuter population gradually falls away. The areas with the strongest ties to London are clearly spread out along major transport links. Look:

Stringer asks whether, given these tight economic links, it's time to look at extending the GLA boundary. He writes:

More than 1.3 million people live in the area marked blue. Every day, many of them decant into London. Their council tax does not contribute towards the services they use there during the working week, nor do they get a vote on how those services should be provided.

Is it time redraw London’s boundaries once again, to embrace these areas that already function as part of the city? Or are there other ways to integrate London’s hinterland, perhaps by giving the Mayor of London greater powers over transport and housing beyond London’s boundaries?

The idea of redrawing London’s boundaries is not as unlikely as it might sound. Twice before – in 1889 and 1965 – the national government has redrawn the city's boundaries to better reflect its physical limits. In the round of revision that happened in the 1960s, some areas (Epsom, Banstead, Cheshunt, Chigwell) were excluded after kicking up a fuss. Others (Romford, Purley, Barnet) were included despite it. Many districts, if told they were going to be included in a new and larger Greater London, would no doubt kick up a fuss all over again.

But today’s Conservative party, at least, might have a very good incentive to extend the boundary once again all the same. London leans towards Labour but, with a few exceptions, those areas just beyond the outskirts are overwelmingly Tory. A bigger London could boost the party’s chances in its mayoral elections for a generation. With Boris plotting his triumphant return to Westminster, this might start to look like a pretty sweet deal.


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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