Changes in London aren’t always down to politics. Sometimes, they’re down to the weather

Primrose Hill, north London, in the recent sunshine. Image: Getty.

I’ve got a reality check for politicians and civil servants in London: be aware that changes in your local area or city – positive and negative alike – are not always a result of your policies. The reality is that some changes in the capital are down to external effects beyond your control. And one of those is the weather.

As Brits, we love talking about the weather. It changes what we wear, how we travel, and our moods. But we don’t think about the broader implications for the city. And now new data shows the alarming impact that extreme weather events can have on things like crime, transport and air quality. The ‘Beast from the East’ also impacted our economy, with sectors like construction and retail hit by a lack of activity.

With climate predictions suggesting London is increasingly likely to experience more extreme weather patterns moving forward, how should we understand and respond to its impact on the day to day functioning of the city?

Crime in the capital is top of both politicians’ and the public’s radar given the spate of violent attacks and murders in the first few months of the year. A recent poll showed 67 per cent of Londoners thought that crime had got worse – a figure rising to 79 per cent for knife crime.

But figures for March suggest that the cold weather had a significant dampening effect on crime across the capital. Intuitively, this makes sense: in the cold, people are less likely to go out and less likely to be involved in crime of many types, especially violent ones. After years of rising, often at quite an alarming rate, total crime, violent crime and knife crime all fell in March this year, compared to the same month in 2017. Experience from international cities which typically get more snow than London, such as Boston, suggests this is not a statistical anomaly. And the hot bank holiday weekend, which saw several violent attacks in the capital, has led some commentators to suggest rising temperatures means more violent crimes.

There might, however, be seen to be a ‘peak temperature’ for crime. Analysis of Greater Manchester Police data suggests that, when the mercury rises above 18°C, crime rates begin to fall. So, while many people may complain about the increasing extremes in London’s weather, cold snaps and heatwaves may end up slightly dampening any increases in crime.

But changes to crime were not the Beast from the East’s only impact on the city. London’s transport network, despite some degree of preparation, also had a tough time.

 

The number of journeys on the tube and bus networks during February and the beginning of March was down compared to the previous year. Undoubtedly some of this was due to people staying at home during the snowy spell, as well as deficiencies in the network’s service as many train lines and bus routes ground to a halt.


And the roads fared little better, perhaps unsurprising given that the capital’s local authorities have cut winter service spending from their highways and transport departments by a quarter in the last seven years. The RAC suggests the snow will have longer term impacts, with a legacy of potholes developing as water froze in cracks on the road, a significant challenge for Transport for London and the boroughs. This effect of the snow was not good news for TfL, given its ongoing budget troubles and reliance on fare income – particularly the profit derived from tube passengers.

While recent cold weather has affected crime and transport, a longer-term view can show how weather affects other things in the city. One of Londoners’ top concerns is the poor-quality air in the capital, and Sadiq Khan has begun to introduce a range of measures to tackle the toxic fumes that come from London’s transport system and built environment.

While these policies are starting to take an effect, the monthly pollution levels continue to fluctuate, often down to the weather. High pressure and low wind tend to make London’s pollution worse, as damaging particles are not blown away from the capital, whereas low pressure can bring pollution from elsewhere into the city.

As Professor Frank Kelly points out, many of the mayor’s policies may fail to reduce pollution concentrations to legal and healthy levels, without complementary effects from national and even international legislation. London is not an island – the weather proves that.

So what can we learn from this? Policymakers at all levels should attempt to better understand how extreme weather will affect demand for services and their ability to provide these services, among a raft of other things. This is especially important given London’s likely volatile future climate, and can help them to better prepare for a more uncertain future.

These lessons are not just limited to modelling how the weather will affect the city, but can also be applied to areas such as population change or changing lifestyle habits. Some things will be easier to understand and prepare for than others. But the more we know, the less damaging their effects on everyday Londoners are likely to be.

The London Intelligence tells London’s story through data. Read the latest edition here.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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