Towns are the winners from Britain’s great urban exodus

Rotherham High Street. Image: Getty.

You may not notice it unless you or your offspring are university-bound, but every autumn brings with it a vast movement of people around the country as the university term begins. More specifically, it triggers an exodus of young people from the UK’s towns and countryside, as they flock to fill university campuses, most of which are based in cities.

Our cities rob the rest of the country of their bright young things. In 2014-15, 420,000 more university students moved to cities compared to the number going in the opposite direction. And this in part helps to explain why the average age of cities is four years younger than the rest of the UK.

But perhaps somewhat surprisingly, cities only see a net inflow of people in the 18-21 age group, and among 25 and 26-year-olds.  As the chart below from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town highlights, in every other age group, cities in England and Wales lost people to towns and rural areas between 2009 and 2017. In fact, over this period over 500,000 more people turned their back on cities than were lured by the bright lights of urban life – with the biggest contributor to this urban exodus being the 31-45 age group.

Migration by age in England and Wales, 2009-17. Source: ONS, Internal migration by local authorities in England and Wales.

And of these people who leave cities, a large proportion of them hold a degree. Data from the Census reveals that in 2011, 40 per cent of people aged over 16 who moved out of cities were graduates.

This varies with age. Cities saw a net inflow of degree holders aged 22 to 30. But this trend was reversed for older age groups, with 31-to-45-year-olds, in particular, moving out of cities.

Migration of degree holders to and from cities, 2011. Source: Census 2011. Data is for England and Wales only.

People’s decisions to move in or out of cities are influenced by their changing need for amenities as they get older. Previous research by Centre for Cities has shown that the main drivers bringing young people into cities (and city centres in particular) are access to jobs, transport and amenities such as restaurants and shops. These benefits are traded off against disadvantages such as smaller living space, higher levels of pollution and more limited access to green space.


But as people get older, the availability of amenities such as schools and green space becomes more important, and so a suburban or non-urban location begins to appeal more.

So yes, towns and rural areas lose young adults to cities as they head off to university. But they also see an inflow of higher-qualified people back into their areas, as those people’s lifestyles and needs change with age. The older average age of non-urban areas isn’t just driven by a loss of young people to cities – it’s also the inflow of older degree holders from cities too.

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

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.

 
 
 
 

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.