No, Brexit is probably not responsible for certain UK cities’ population decline

Oxford. Image: Getty.

This year’s Cities Outlook from the Centre for Cities shows that, while the population of the UK continues to grow apace, six cities saw their populations fall. More surprising is that, of the six, four are in the Greater South East of England. So what’s going on?

This group of four is made up of Oxford (a fall of 0.5 per cent), Luton (a 0.6 per cent fall), Aldershot (0.1 per cent fall), and Ipswich (a marginal fall of 0.03 per cent, or 40 people). They’re joined by Aberdeen, which maintains the falls seen in previous years, and Sunderland – where the population growth has been sluggish for some time.

Given the strong growth in the Greater South East’s population as a whole, and the growth seen in previous years in the cities themselves (as the chart below shows), their fall in population is somewhat of a surprise. Digging into the data shows what contributed to this.

Source: Centre for Cities/NOMIS, mid-year population estimates.

An age breakdown of this population data shows that three of the four cities – all except Ipswich – saw a decline in their population aged 25 to 49. Interestingly, this fall was seen in many other cities in the Greater South East, with a total of 15 of the 19 cities in this area losing 25 to 49-year-olds.

The components of population growth – migration to and from the rest of England and Wales, migration to and from the rest of the world, and the difference between births and deaths – show that the main cause of population decline in these cities was people leaving for elsewhere in England and Wales.

Between 2016 and 2017 the four cities lost between 1,000 to over 5,000 people to other British cities. International migration on the other hand, although not necessarily from EU countries, is actually offsetting this loss of population, as the chart below shows.

Source: Centre for Cities/NOMIS, mid-year population estimates.

As we pointed out in our response to the recently released Immigration White Paper, cities are heavily reliant on EU immigration of high-and low-skilled labour, especially in the Greater South East, with the most successful cities, such as Cambridge, Oxford and London, among the places with the highest share of migrants. While many predicted that the 2016 referendum would lead to a decline in this migrant pool, the data available suggests that this is not the reason behind the fall in population in Aldershot, Ipswich, Luton and Oxford to date.

This, of course, is only one year’s worth of data. Only time will tell whether the cities’ population declines, and their demographic make-up, persist in the years to come.

Juliana Lindell is a research intern at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog 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.