How did London come to be the world’s greatest financial hub?

The City of London. Image: Getty.

This article is presented by Userp.biz.

Ask anyone about powerful stock markets and financial hubs, and the conversation will likely turn to Wall Street. But in actual fact, London has been far more powerful than Wall Street – or any other financial hotspot – for many years. Up until the recent Brexit referendum, which saw Britain vote to leave the European Union, London was king when it came to business, stock trading and financial operations in general.

How did London surpass Wall Street as the world’s finance capital? Partly it was due to favourable legislation, and partly to good positioning. London’s time zone means that its business hours overlap those of the Middle East, America and Asia – something which definitely put the city in good stead when it came to trading.

That said, the key event in London’s rise as the world’s premier financial hub was probably legislation passed the “Big Bang” reforms passed by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986. These were intended to remove the laws that were protecting Britain’s slow-growing firms and contributing to sluggish financial markets.

The results were immediate. From a network of small companies with very little potential for growth, London-based businesses grew overnight to become conglomerates of huge proportions, along with more advanced financial practices like virtual banking.

Even better news for UK businesses lay ahead. The Big Bang had created relaxed regulatory measures that allowed corporations to earn unlimited amounts of money between the 1980s and the early 2000s. Helping London further, in 2002, the US Congress tightened corporate regulations through the Sarbanes-Oxley reforms, which increased paperwork and put a cap on the local earning opportunities.

So London’s stock markets flourished: American firms were forced to adhere to the Sarbanes-Oxley reforms, but other international markets simply sidestepped them by taking their business to London instead. It was through these actions that London finally bypassed Wall Street, becoming the world’s number one hotspot for trading and business ventures. Within a few years London had captured more than 75 per cent of the US exchange’s public stock, and Congress was trying to win them back through softer regulation.


The Brexit shockwave

London enjoyed its status as the world’s hub of finance for a few more years, but it was not to last. When the public voted for Brexit, London’s Stock Exchange plummeted, as companies and investors pulled out of Britain and moved their business to other European districts.

Brexit has had a huge impact on businesses in the UK, and a number of European cities that have the potential to replace London as the finance capital of Europe – and perhaps even the world – have stepped forward. Frankfurt, Paris, Madrid and Amsterdam are being touted as candidates, while many experts also theorise that Dublin’s technologically advanced approach may put them in the lead.

However, the glory days might not be over just yet for London. Some commentators have suggested that the British capital will continue to dominate European financial markets for a number of key reasons.

Firstly, the strength of the local courts means that the rule of law will continue to be upheld, including those that protect creditor and shareholders’ rights. Secondly, the UK’s university education offerings in economics and finance are far superior to those anywhere else in Europe. And lastly, the UK’s regulations controlling tax and employment is designed specifically to boost the financial industry’s overall health and profit margins.

There is no denying that trade has become more challenging in London since Brexit. Tax loopholes have been closed, and companies are expected to shell out more of their profits in the process. However, if London manages to keep its dominance over European financial markets, it stands to reason that the city may one day reclaim its title of the world’s greatest finance hub.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.