Slough is the most productive urban area in Britain. What’s that about, then?

Come friendly bombs. Image: 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.  

On any list of crap British towns, Slough – a town so crap that the future Poet Laureate literally wrote a poem calling on the Luftwaffe to bomb the shit out of it – is likely to feature heavily. It's grey, it's industrial, and despite being right next door to Windsor it has few notable historical sites. It is, basically, rubbish.

It’s also, as it happens, the most productive urban area in Britain.

According to the Centre for Cities' 2019 Cities Outlook report, Slough's GVA per worker – a rough measure of how much economic activity every worker in the area was responsible for – stood at £82,000. The average across all cities in Great Britain was just £57,000. Even London only managed £80,000.

Here's a chart of the GVA per worker across the 19 big urban areas of what the Centre for Cities calls the Greater South East (London, the South East, and the East of England) in 2017.

Slough is the only city with GVA per worker greater than the capital, but several other crap towns, for want of a term less likely to get me in trouble, in the London commuter belt are also doing surprisingly well. Crawley, Aldershot, Basildon, even Luton – none of these are places we think of as economic powerhouses, or even particularly wealthy. And yet, in 2017, all had higher productivity than places, like Oxford and Cambridge – places that we do think of that way.

Just to check this wasn't a fluke, here's the same chart for 2015:

Basildon is slightly lower down the rankings, but otherwise, it's the same story.

So why are these slightly rubbish towns generating so much wealth? Proximity to London is clearly one factor. Proximity to an airport helps too, one suspects, since both Slough (Heathrow) and Crawley (Gatwick) are high up the list. The fact Slough, Reading and (outside the Greater South East) Swindon all have high productivity suggests that the much vaunted M4 tech corridor too is a factor.

But none of this seems sufficient to explain the rise up the charts of, for example, Basildon. So what's going on?

"The short answer is we don't know for sure," the CfC's head of policy Paul Swinney told me, reassuringly. "There are a number of businesses that don't necessarily want to be based in London, but that do want access to a lot of high skilled workers.” By way of example, he points to companies like Mars (UK headquarters in Slough) and Pepsi (UK headquarters: Reading). “Being in the Greater South East definitely gives you that."

So the need for high-skilled workers, who thanks to England's insanely divided economy, tend to cluster in the rich south east, explains the desire to be close to London. But why not be based in the capital itself?

There are two possibilities. One is cost: an office in Slough is going to be a lot cheaper than an office near Oxford Street, especially if you require a lot of space. Another relates to the benefits that paying the more expensive space is meant to bring.

The agglomeration effect – in which big places tend to be more productive – comes about because companies that are based close together share information and expertise, as people gossip in bars, move to new employers and so on. In banking or professional services, it’s those knowledge exchanges from which a lot of the value comes.

But while the types of companies that base themselves in places like Slough may be looking for lot of high skilled workers, "They're probably not in a position where want to go share load of information with their competitors,” says Swinney. “Especially in manufacturing, some of that information is quite commercially sensitive."

So these businesses "don't necessarily benefit from knowledge spillover element of agglomeration. They don't want a central London location, because they won't benefit from the advantages it offers.”

The obvious question then is why these companies couldn't be based in Wakefield or Sunderland. Places like that, Swinney says, "have a lot of cheap land but not a lot of access to high skilled workers". The north-south divide isn't just an economic gap – it's a skills one.

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

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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.