COMMENT  ⁄  ECONOMY & ENTERPRISE

Selective use of statistics presents an unbalanced account of Exeter's economic & environmental status

Exeter City Council's Chief Executive uses statistics to show the city in a good light, but in doing so presents a picture which omits important information about the city's true position.

EXETER CITY COUNCIL   ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY   AIR QUALITY   CLIMATE CRISIS   HOUSING   EXETER LIVE BETTER   LIVEABLE EXETER  

Twitter followers of Karime Hassan, Exeter City Council’s Chief Executive and Growth Director, may have noticed his frequent recourse to statistics which paint the city in a favourable light. The most recent such tweet, posted on 17 March, read:

“According to @CentreforCities Exeter is among the top 10 cities in the UK for: population growth (2nd), housing stock growth (6th), air quality (5th), low CO2 emissions (7th), low claimant count (2nd) & low proportion of working age pop’n with no formal qualifications (2nd).”

Centre for Cities (CfC) describes itself as follows:

“Our mission is to help the UK’s largest cities and towns realise their economic potential. We produce rigorous, data-driven research and policy ideas to help cities, large towns and Government address the challenges and opportunities they face – from boosting productivity and wages to preparing for the changing world of work.”

The CfC website provides a data tool which enables comparisons to be made between up to 63 cities and large towns across a range of indicators. The data is extracted from publicly available statistics, mostly from central government or other national agencies.

The statistics quoted in Mr Hassan’s tweets appear designed to reinforce the council’s marketing of the city as a success story. The city’s syntactically ambiguous strap line Exeter Live Better fights for space alongside other council-inspired snippets such as Liveable Exeter, Live & Move and Building Exeter Back Better. But without substantiating evidence, this is all public relations puff.

Centre for Cities Exeter City Monitor graphic

Centre for Cities City Monitor Exeter profile. Image: Centre for Cities

It is important to note that the CfC only presents figures for 63 cities and towns. Rural districts, for example, are excluded so comparative rankings are limited to urban areas and do not capture the complex impact of a city’s travel to work area.

In fact Exeter was only included in the CfC’s figures when its methodology was changed in December 2015 to reduce its previous emphasis on travel to work areas.

Exeter’s is very large: the city’s population is currently estimated to be 129,000 while its travel to work area includes 470,000 residents.

Of the indicators Mr Hassan selected in his recent tweet, it is fair to make the following points (figures quoted are almost all from 2019 and so unaffected by the pandemic).

Population

We were unable to find data which supported the claim that Exeter has the second highest growth rate in the UK, although it has figured in the top ten for several years now.

Its small population compared to the other CfC cities, fifth from bottom of the list, means relatively few additional residents translate to relatively large percentage changes.

Population growth is both a positive – if you are selling goods and services to people – and a negative – if you prefer Exeter as a quiet county town with less demand for housing.

Housing

The city having the sixth highest housing stock growth (1.46%) in 2018-19 highlights a positive story. The need for more housing is well-documented, and the Liveable Exeter programme aims to build 12,000 new homes in the city by 2040 by applying some innovative thinking to their location and planning.

Yet the CfC figures also measure the housing affordability ratio, which is the average house price in an area divided by gross average annual earnings in the same area.

CfC gives Exeter as the sixth least affordable city beaten only in the unaffordability stakes by Oxford, London, Cambridge, Brighton and Bournemouth. August company these cities may be, but that offers small consolation for many people trying to buy a house here.

It is worth noting that compared with all local authority districts and boroughs in England and Wales, Exeter is relatively more affordable. With the exception of Torbay and Plymouth, all Devon’s other districts are less affordable than Exeter.

On a national scale, which shows each London and metropolitan borough separately, Exeter ranks 182nd out of 339 local authority areas in England and Wales for affordability.

Air quality

Although ranked fifth in the UK by the CfC for the lowest number of days of poor air quality each year, Exeter is in the number one position for England.

Residents may be surprised at this, but the data covers the whole city and makes little allowance for the known pollution hotspots where levels of nitrogen dioxide exceed or are close to the legal limit.

Carbon emissions

At seventh from the top, and on equal ranking with Plymouth and just below London, this looks like another positive. There is much more to do, particularly in reducing private car use, but the city does have a plan, albeit flawed, aimed at reaching net zero carbon by 2030.

However the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy figures used by the CfC exclude emissions from international air travel, shipping and the production of imported goods and services. So the varying extent to which places export their emissions elsewhere in the UK and abroad distorts these figures.

The majority of the UK’s carbon-intensive industries are concentrated in the Midlands, North of England and Scotland, with very little such activity taking place in Exeter.

And Exeter’s performance over time is much more middling: in the ten years to 2018 the city’s emissions reductions per capita were only two thirds of the national average.

Claimant count

Although recorded in the number two spot, behind York and just above Oxford and Cambridge, this is not a particularly helpful indicator. The government explains that the claimant count is a measure of the number of people claiming unemployment related benefits. Before 2013 this was simply the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.

From April 2013 Universal Credit claimants searching for work were added to the claimant count, meaning that more people are brought within the coverage of the count, so it is set to rise noticeably over time and will happen irrespective of how the economy performs.

As a result, the Office for National Statistics withdrew the claimant count from its national Labour Market Statistics Bulletin in March 2017, stating that the it was no longer a reliable economic indicator.

Qualifications

Mr Hassan’s selection of the proportion of working age population with no formal qualifications as an indicator again shows Exeter in a good light. Behind only Crawley (aka Gatwick Airport), Exeter has the lowest proportion of the 63 CfC cities at 3%.

Less impressive is the other end of the qualifications scale, where the CfC indicator is the proportion of the working age population with a qualification at NVQ4 (Higher National Diploma level) or above.

Exeter ranks 22nd out of 63 with a score of 38.9%. Reducing the CfC comparators to cities with one of the high-performing Russell Group universities (which includes the University of Exeter) places Exeter at 13th out of 18.

Perhaps worryingly, the CfC figures show that over the period 2015-19 the proportion of the working age population with such qualifications in Exeter fell by 2.9%, whereas the national average increased by 3.3%.

Like most statistics, this figure is open to interpretation. For example, is Exeter’s proportion so low because many of the university’s academics prefer to live outside the city’s boundaries?

Earnings

Mr Hassan does not select any figures relating to earnings in Exeter. It is easy to see why.

In 2020 the CfC gave average weekly workplace earnings for Exeter as £456.73 and ranked the city in 49th place out of 63. Between 2016 and 2020 these average earnings fell by 11.8% in the city, a decline only exceeded by Blackburn and Burnley, both in Lancashire.

Exeter also has one of the lowest levels of private sector jobs and one of the lowest ratios of private to public sector employment in the CfC index. It is seventh from bottom on both metrics.

Code of practice

There is also a propriety issue here. Local authorities are required by legislation to consider the Government Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity (issued under section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986) when communications, in whatever form, are addressed to the public or a section of the public.

The code’s principles include the requirement that such communications should be both objective and even-handed, and specific clauses that bar local authorities from using their resources to persuade the public to hold particular views on questions of policy and require that they address controversial matters fairly.

In addition, Local Government Association guidance based on this legislation makes it clear that “councils should not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party”.

This may not have been Mr Hassan’s intention, but Exeter’s Labour Party and a Labour candidate in the forthcoming city council elections both retweeted his tweet and claimed the success story it seemed to tell to be the result of having a Labour-led council.

We believe Exeter’s voters should be sufficiently well-informed about what is taking place to participate effectively in local democracy and make choices in the interests of their family, friends and communities.

To this end we consider it our duty to redress the balance by providing a more complete account of Exeter’s economic and environmental position.


 is a contributing editor of Exeter Observer.

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