Want to know where to find a real-life magic money tree? Look to the night tube

The Night Tube, on opening night, last August. Image: Getty.

One of Theresa May’s beloved slogans during the less-beloved election of 2017 was all about a so-called “magic money tree”. Whenever somebody complained that her manifesto didn’t offer enough funding for things like schools, hospitals, or nurses’ wages – or when somebody mentioned that Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto offered more funding for things like schools, hospitals, and nurses’ wages – Theresa would develop a tiny twinkle behind the eye and say there was “no magic money tree”.

Fake news. There is a magic money tree – albeit a very small one – and it’s called the night tube.

Despite the long series of delays, union disagreements, pushed-back launch dates, and theories that the next version of Waiting for Godot at the National Theatre would be called Waiting for the Night Tube, we now have 24-hour services on the Jubilee, Victoria, Central, and (some) of the Northern line on Friday and Saturday nights.

And though it hasn’t been running for long, the early evidence shows that even such a limited service has had an astonishing effect. Mark Wild, the managing director of London Underground, has said that passenger numbers were 50 per cent higher than forecast over the first few months of the service to November 2016.

More than 100,000 people used the night tube during the first weekend it ran, and that popularity has shown no great signs of abating.

A celebratory night tube train on the Victoria line at Pimlico. Image: Alex Nevin-Tylee.

The London Assembly’s Transport Committee chair – Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon – said that TfL had expected the night tube to run at a loss for the first three years of its service, racking up a total bill of £24.6m. This no longer looks likely, and TfL operation heads say they’ll break even much earlier.

But it’s more than just the popularity of the service itself that’s important.

Worldpay is the biggest payments processor in the UK – as in, they sell a whole load of card machines (mobile and wired) and also handle online payments – and has been doing pretty well recently, despite possible concerns about the impact of Brexit. The firm took a look at card transaction data for the late-night period, the hours between 1am and 4:30am, in the London area.

Its analysis showed that takings rose 75 per cent from before the launch of the night tube to June of this year. Almost a third of that late-night spending came in the borough of Westminster – the city’s nightlife hub and where the night tube services on the Jubilee, Central, Victoria, Piccadilly, and Northern lines intersect – but that increases in spending also occurred in more far-flung districts areas.

A map of current night tube services. Image: TfL

An increase of 75 per cent in takings is not something to be sneered at – essentially, the amount of money that businesses in central London made at night almost double because of the night tube, or at the very least at the same time as the introduction of the night tube. That’s huge, and is pretty much good news for everyone.

The fact that businesses re making more money means that they’re able to grow – perhaps by opening up new branches or by hiring new staff – which means more jobs are on offer, meaning lower unemployment rates. This in turn means more taxes collected from those people earning those wages, which in turn means more money to be able to spend on nice things like schools, hospitals, and night tube services.

But while TfL have admitted that they won’t be able to extend the night tube to the sub-surface lines – Circle, District, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines – in the near future because of what they call ‘open heart surgery’ on the signalling systems, they’ve not ruled it out. Night tube services expanding to these areas – and, if they’re so inclined – to the other branch of the Northern line via Bank, or to the Bakerloo line, would mean a further boon for businesses. 

Oh yes – and the night overground service between Dalston Junction and New Cross Gate, which was today confirmed to start running from December, will also be a huge boost to economic activity at night in the city's emergent eastern fringe.

So there is a magic money tree. There has been this whole time.

It’s called sensible investment in public services. Welcome to the night tube. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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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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