A decade has passed since Hull was labelled ‘the worst place to live in Britain’ in an internet poll. Dubious and far from scientific in its findings, the unwelcome title bestowed upon the city by The Idler website has nevertheless continued to rankle with many.
Over the past few months, however, there has been a break in the dark clouds of economic and social deprivation and residents, it appears, are of a much sunnier disposition.
It has nothing to do with the weather taking a turn for the better...it’s because Hullensians are now basking in the warmth of a brighter tomorrow. Indeed, at no point in its history
has Hull’s future looked so promising with events combining to form a perfect storm
Last November it beat off competition from Dundee, Leicester and Swansea Bay to be named UK City of Culture 2017. Then came the news in March that wind turbine giant Siemens is to build a huge factory complex on the Humber north bank in a £310m deal that will create an initial 1,000 jobs and an estimated 10,000 more in the supply chain and related businesses.
The German company will invest £160m across Alexandra Dock in east Hull and nearby Paull. Meanwhile, the dock’s owner, Associated British Ports, is to invest £150m in the Green Port Hull development.
The same month saw confirmation from the Government that it is backing plans to electrify the Hull to Selby rail line. Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin is making £2.5m available to take the project to the next stage on the back of a £94m investment by First Hull Trains.
And then in May, just to cap it all, Steve Bruce achieved what for many football fans must have seemed like a highly improbable feat… he took Hull City to their first FA Cup final in the club’s 110-year history. The result – a heroic 3-2 defeat against Arsenal – was almost irrelevant in terms of the benefits to the local economy.
With an estimated global television audience of half a billion tuning in – many of whom will never have heard of Hull, let alone be able to pinpoint it on a map – it amounted to high-profile exposure you simply couldn’t buy.
It doesn’t end there though. More overseas recognition will follow with the team securing a place in the Europa League thanks to Arsenal having already qualified for the Champions League.
However, it is the successful City of Culture bid that has the greatest potential to transform the fortunes of this gritty – and unfairly maligned – city.
That said, there is still much work to do, not least of all the small matter of raising the estimated £22m required to fund around 1,500 cultural events in the city throughout 2017, many of which promise to be spectacular.
In the eye of the perfect storm is Jon Pywell, who led the culture bid and is assistant head of service (economic development and regeneration) at Kingston upon Hull City Council.
He believes the importance of securing City of Culture status cannot be overstated.
“The day we found out we had been successful was the day this city changed forever,” he said.
“There has already been an impact in terms of visitor numbers – people want to see what all the fuss is about. And the amount of positive media coverage we have received has been amazing. We have estimated its worth to be just under £10m.
“We keep a close eye on these things and I can tell you that there have been more than 1,200 broadcast and print media items about Hull since the announcement, and who knows how many articles on social media?”
There’s plenty of evidence documenting the benefits of City of Culture status. The accolade – which is only awarded once every four years – is currently held by Derry-Londonderry. Findings there suggest that for every £1 spent on the bid, £5 has been recouped by the city. Meanwhile Liverpool – which was European City of Culture in 2008 – estimated its worth to be in excess of £750m.
Pywell is quick to praise the role of the city’s businesses in clinching the deal. After Hull failed in its bid for City of Culture status in 2009, there was an understandable degree of scepticism in some quarters when it was announced that the city was prepared to try again.
However, this time some 22 businesses – known collectively as the Angels consortium – were confident that they, like the city’s football team, could punch above their weight. Their efforts – which included raising £374,000 in the run up to the bid process – were recognised in May at the Arts and Business Awards in London, where they received an award in the New Sponsorship category. Judges praised them as “a true example of how collaboration can create a strong and sustainable arts programme for the community.”
At the event, Andy Capes of Baker Tilly, one of the Angels backing the bid, said: “Hosting the City of Culture 2017 will enable Hull to showcase its creative talent on the national and international stage, and contribute to the regeneration and future economic growth of the city and the wider region.”
“The Angels scheme was all about getting businesses engaged in the process because they understand what City of Culture status can do for Hull’s profile,” said Pywell.
“But it hasn’t all been about business interests. This is very much about people and the amount of goodwill we have been shown has been amazing. Everyone has been right behind us. The truth is, none of this would have been possible without public support.”
Indeed Pywell believes Hull residents – past and present – were a key factor in the bid’s success. A film produced to back the bid featured ordinary folk of all ages talking proudly about their city, intermingled with images taken from its heyday as a fishing port and up-to-date clips of today’s Hull – a modern, vibrant forward-looking city that is acutely aware of its own unique place in the world. It’s a city that gave birth to William Wilberforce, the progressive MP who led the movement to abolish slavery; to Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia; and to cream-coloured phone boxes, an enduring symbol of the city’s independence. Six months on, the film – This City Belongs to Everyone – has been viewed by more than 110,000 people in over 150 countries on YouTube.
Pywell said: “I believe the film struck the right tone and summed up what Hull is all about – a great port city with an even greater future.
“But now we have it all to do. The decision in our favour was a game changer and we know we will only get one chance to make 2017 count.
“The countdown began immediately and I’ve been counting the days ever since. Right now there are 945 to go and the clock is ticking. Given the amount of support we are receiving from businesses, I believe our £22m target, which has increased from our original estimate of £14m, is realistic.”
The 2017 programme includes 15 national and international commissions; 12 artists’ residencies; 25 festivals; eight major community participation projects and a programme of conferences and major broadcasting events.
And organisers are working diligently behind the scenes in a bid to bring the Turner Prize to the city, a three-month celebration of art that would surely be among the cultural highlights of Hull’s year in the spotlight.
But what about considerations beyond culture? Will 2017 make a tangible difference to people’s lives?
Pywell certainly hopes so. The council has plans to make improvements to its city centre and public spaces.
“We’re using 2017 as a catalyst for infrastructure projects,” he explained. “We’re aware that some of the areas people experience are looking tired, and that some public spaces – Queen’s Gardens for example – are not as accessible as they could be.
He added: “We are entering a wonderful time in Hull’s history. Everything does seem to have come together – the culture bid, the Siemens announcement and rail electrification and, of course, the achievements of the city’s football team.
“There’s definitely a new-found confidence – something we appear to have lost along the way at some point in our past.
“So the challenge now is to turn all of this positive energy into a lasting legacy. That means attracting investment, strengthening the cultural sector, boosting employment opportunities and so on.
“This is a city emerging from the shadows. In the past we have perhaps been guilty of not shouting loudly enough about our successes. But we are aware that our time is now…we have to make it work. We have to put ourselves back where we belong as a major city.”