Sorry, Theresa May: The best way to create Stronger Towns is to invest in our cities

Rotherham. Image: Getty.

Yesterday’s news was dominated by the expected announcement of the Stronger Towns Fund and the apparent pork barrel politics of it. Whether that is the case or not, there are now decisions to be made about how this £1.6bn should be spent.

There is much to be welcomed about this fund. As the Centre for Cities has written elsewhere, the great irony of the Brexit vote is that the alarm call that it sounded that people in many parts of the country were not happy with the economic opportunity available to them has been completely ignored since the referendum. And so, belatedly attempting to answer this alarm call is welcome – although it’s a common misconception that all towns voted to leave, something the government appears to acknowledge with the skew in the funding to the North and Midlands.

The fund should have its main focus on skills.  More specifically, giving the whole £1.6bn to the better provision and take-up of further education would be a real win. It’s amazing that politicians continue to call for the scrapping of university fees while saying nothing about the underfunding of further education.

But which form of education is someone with no or few formal qualifications living in a ‘left behind’ town most likely to use? The 51 per cent of people in Peterlee (near Sunderland) that haven’t even got five passes at GCSE, or the 55 per cent in Clacton-on-Sea (in Essex) are unlikely to benefit from the scrapping of fees.

That won’t happen, of course. Instead at least a portion of the money will go on attempting to boost jobs and productivity in these areas, as the minister repeated a number of times in his radio appearance yesterday morning. And this is where the fund will likely run into trouble.

The desire to promise jobs and wage increases in towns is completely understandable – but it is much more difficult to deliver.

The economic structure of a town, proximity to a city and cost of commercial space. Image: Centre for Cities.

Our Talk of the Town report gives two insights on this, which are drawn from the chart of town performance above.

Firstly, with the exception of Yeovil, no town that isn’t within commutable distance of a city has been successful at attracting in high-skilled jobs.


Secondly, being close to a city is no guarantee of town success. In fact, those towns that are close to struggling cities tend to perform no better than those that are more isolated.

This suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, that the employment outcomes for people in towns are reliant on the performance of their nearest city. And it is the underperformance of these neighbouring cities that explain at least in part of the struggles of some towns.

So what does this mean for the fund? The goal of it should be to improve the employment outcomes of residents of towns, irrespective of where they work. Beyond skills, if it is to have an impact, it should look at improving transport links to the nearest city.

This, of course, will have little impact if the city itself is struggling. And this is why, despite the current interest in towns, the main plank of any domestic policy in a post-Brexit world must be about improving the performance of struggling cities, particularly in the North. This won’t just bring benefits to the people who live in these cities themselves, or to the national economy as a whole. It’ll improve the employment outcomes for people living in the surrounding towns too.

The fundamental question that any fund will need to answer – be it the National Productivity Fund, the Stronger Towns Fund or the Shared Prosperity Fund – is: what is the nature of the problem that it is attempting to solve? If the problem is one of inclusion, then it will need to be targeted on the people and places that are currently excluded. If it’s about economic growth, then it needs to note that not everywhere can or should be expected to play the same role in the economy.

The underperformance of the North as a whole is largely down to the poor performance of its cities. And so if we are to see a country that works for everyone addressing this underperformance needs to be agenda item number one.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

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.