What do the differences seen in nearby cities tell us about successful high streets?

Liverpool. Image: Getty.

The received wisdom in the media is that high streets across the UK are struggling. This is influenced by the financial struggles of prominent stores like HMV and M&S and closures of Toys ‘R’ Us and Maplin.

But the headlines obscure an important point: the woes of the high street are not universal. Rather, our research reveals a large variation in the performance of high streets, even amongst those close to each other.

Take, for instance, Liverpool and Birkenhead. As shown in the map below, the two cities are separated only by the River Mersey, yet are very different in terms of the health of their high streets. While Liverpool has a high street vacancy rate of just 10 per cent, Birkenhead’s is almost double at 19 per cent. A similar divergence occurs in South Wales: 15 per cent of city centre retail units are vacant in Cardiff, far lower than Newport’s 24 per cent.

Vacancy rates in city centres. Image: Centre for Cities.

It is not just a matter of empty shops; the type of shops in a city centre matters too. One-quarter of Liverpool’s retail is classed as ‘value’ – such as charity shops or discount stores – compared to 40 per cent of shops in Birkenhead. And while Cardiff only has 18 per cent of its shops classed as ‘value,’ 42 per cent of Newport’s shops fall under the same category. Liverpool and Cardiff also have a far higher proportion of premium shops, as seen in the charts below.

Cities centres by status of retail units. Image: Centre for Cities.

Crucially, the relative health of these high streets reflects the strength of the city centres’ economies and their attractiveness to business, rather than being the driver of it. Liverpool and Cardiff have more successful high streets because they’ve been able to attract in more high-skilled businesses than Birkenhead and Newport. Well-paid office workers in these city centres increase footfall and customer spending power. This creates a market for retailers, bars and restaurants to sell to – which leads to a stronger high street.

The proximity of these city centres to each other does raise the rather thorny question of whether one sucks activity away from the other. Undoubtedly people do cross the Mersey from Birkenhead to visit Liverpool’s shops and restaurants.

But this underlines the need to boost footfall in Newport or Birkenhead by increasing the number of jobs in their city centres. Neither is going to pull people in solely as a leisure destination, especially given the strength of their neighbours. And so a better future for the high streets of Birkenhead and Newport will require a focus on the attractiveness of the city centres as places to do business in order to give people a reason to come in.

This pattern is most clearly seen in London. Despite its success, Oxford Street isn’t the only successful shopping area in London, with the City of London and Canary Wharf, for example, also doing well. The vacancy rate in the latter was less than 6 per cent in 2017-18. Importantly, this is driven by the large volumes of workers pulled in each day, and it’s hard to see how high street services would survive in these areas if it wasn’t for all the office jobs above them.

This means that urban policymakers should not obsess over high street vacancy rates in isolation, but consider retail as one aspect of a diverse economic and cultural offering.  The way to breathe back life into a high street is not with a concerted retail expansion, but to make it a compelling place to invest in and set up business. If the number of high-skilled jobs in city centres increases, there will be more footfall and spend to sustain their high streets and keep shops open.

Owen Bell is a research intern at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this post 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.