Which British cities will be hit hardest by Brexit?

Theresa May in Brussels in June. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

A lot of my time at work is given over to worrying fitfully about two things. One is cities policy. The other is Brexit.

What could be more thrilling, then, than a report which combines those two topics into a single piece of research? The answer, as it turns out, is almost anything, because this report is one of the most depressing things I’ve seen in ages.

The study, a joint effort between the Centre for Cities and LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, looks at what both “Hard” and “Soft” Brexit would do to the economies of 62 British cities. (In the unlikely event you’re unsure, “soft” Brexit means we stay in a free trade area with the EU, but have to content with new non-tariff barriers; “hard” Brexit means we leave the free trade area and have to deal with tariffs as well.)

In either scenario, literally every city loses out. Only two cities – Crawley and Barnsley; neither exactly an economic powerhouse – would lose less than 1 per cent of GVA, a measure of productivity, even in the softer scenario.

The vast majority of cities will lose between 1 and 1.5 per cent of GVA under the Soft Brexit scenario. Worst affected would be Aberdeen, heart of the Scottish petrochemical industry which would lose 2.1 per cent. That’s about as much productivity as the UK as gained in its lost decade since 2006.

And this, remember, is in the gentler scenario. Should we have a Hard Brexit – the plan the British government seems to favour – the impact will be twice as bad, and vast majority of cities will be losing between 2 and 3 per cent of GVA.

Aberdeen, once again the hardest hit, would lose 3.7 per cent. Indeed, the ranking of cities doesn’t change much between soft and hard Brexit: seven cities make the top 10 under either scenario; seven more make the bottom 10. A harder Brexit will take a deeper gouge out of the British economy, but won’t change which cities are the worst afflicted.

Much of the debate around Brexit has had a “turkeys voting for Christmas” subtext to it: a suggestion that the areas that voted Leave would be those most likely to take a hit.

The CfC/CEP report shows that the picture is rather more nuanced than that. In both scenarios, the report says:

“...it is economically vibrant cities - predominantly in the South of England - which will be hit hardest and most directly by Brexit... In contrast, the cities least directly affected by either form of Brexit are mostly less prosperous places in the North, Midlands and Wales.”

That implies a couple of things. One is that it wasn’t turkeys voting for Christmas at all: by and large, those cities with the most to lose from Brexit were actually more likely to vote against it. The other is that, since it’ll be the richer cities which are hit hardest, the aggregate effect of Brexit might actually be worse than a simple average suggests.

That, though, is only the short term effect. The report also makes clear that the most affected cities are also the most resilient, and so the best-placed to respond to the shock. Poorer cities may be less vulnerable to the post-Brexit downturn; but they’ll also find it harder to bounce back.

Oh – and then there’s the matter of EU regional funds, which go overwhelmingly to poorer, more pro-Brexit areas, and which are incredibly unlikely to be replaced by the British government. But that’s another story.

 

Here’s a chart showing the predicted reduction in GVA in every city in the report (blue is under soft Brexit, red and blue combined is Hard Brexit). I’ve grouped them by region, to enable you to see how different parts of the country will be affected.

Click to expand.

Andrew Carter, the CfC’s chief executive, called on the government to “secure the best possible trade deal with the EU”:

“That means ensuring that our post-Brexit trading arrangements are as close to our current relationship with Europe as possible.”

“But it’s also critical that the government uses its forthcoming industrial strategy to give cities across the country the investment, powers and responsibilities they need to make their economies as successful and competitive as possible.”

Such a move would make sense: cities must be given as many tools as possible to deal with the shocks ahead. The fear, though, must be that Brexit will take up so much of the government’s time that devolution policy is basically off the table. Even if ministers still want to empower their cities – by no means certain, when you look at the rest of Theresa May’s agenda – it’s by no means clear that they have the capacity to do it.


You can read the full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

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.