It’s a KIBS thing: Are some British cities going backwards?

Knowledge-intensive business services, 1890s style. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

We haven't talked about KIBS in a while, have we? Let's talk about KIBS.

"Knowledge Intensive Business Services" are, basically, the high-skill, high-value bit of the modern economy. In short, you can break an economy up into extraction, manufacturing, agriculture, and services. It's the latter that generates most of the wealth in advanced economies, but not all services are equal: there is much more money to be made in accountancy, say, than there is in retail. At any rate: if you want your city to be rich, you generally want more of those delicious KIBS.

So this, on the whole, is a bit worrying:

In the first half of the decade, KIBS fell as a share of the economy in no fewer than 23 of the 63 cities in our database. And not all of these cities are places you'd associate with economic problems, either: they struggling cities like Dundee, Swansea and Burnley, but also richer ones like Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Milton Keynes.

The decade started rather bumpily, so I checked if this as just a recession thing by checking if the pattern held if you started counting in later years. Starting the clock in 2013, things were different. Now there were 27 cities where the KIBS had shrunk. Right.

So what's going on? Couple of theories. One is that they've lost some good jobs: in the smaller of these economies (Slough, Worthing), the loss of one significant company is probably enough to make a noticeable dent in the figures. Another possibility is that they haven't lost KIBS jobs – might even have gained them – but that other, generally less productive sectors have grown faster.

What is clear is that there is, perhaps surprisingly, no obvious link with incomes. Check out this scatter graph which plots the change in KIBS with the change in weekly wages. There is, and I'm being charitable here, no correlation whatsoever. It’s a correlation coefficient of 0.04, which is basically invisible.

Click to expand.

 

Which suggests that maybe seeing the share of your economy devoted to KIBS shrink by 2 per cent really just doesn't matter that much. Perhaps there are other well-paying jobs replacing them, which aren’t classed as KIBS because there’s a quirk of the data. More likely, I suspect, there’s a mismatch between the two datasets: the KIBS one shows what happens inside a city’s economy, whereas the wages one includes people who live there but work elsewhere. What happens in Worthing is probably less important to its residents than what happens in London.

And yet, and yet... Here's another scatter graph showing weekly wages against KIBS. Unlike the last one, though, this isn't change over time: it's the figures for a single year, 2015.

Click to expand.

That very definitely is a correlation: a coefficient of 0.66, which is pretty bloody strong.

So: KIBS-heavy cities do still do a lot, lot better: perhaps the changes in that earlier dataset are simply too small to have much of an impact.


The lesson here seems to be that a city can see the share of its economy devoted to high-value business services shrink a little without consequence. But if it starts dropping like a stone, people are going to get a lot, lot poorer.

Anyway, to sum up, I'm sure Brexit will be completely and utterly fine.

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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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.