The 20th century was not the happiest of times for Kingston upon Hull, which lies on the Humber estuary near England’s North Sea coast. The city, better known simply as Hull, entered the 1900s as one of the most prosperous ports in the world. However, heavy bombing during the Second World War – which saw 95% of its housing stock damaged – decimated the city and its docks, a blow that was compounded by the devastation of its fishing industry during the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970s.
This decline led to Hull suffering from social and economic problems that frequently saw it high in the UK rankings for crime levels and unemployment, but low for factors such as education and house prices.
The city that roared
However, since the turn of the millennium, something has stirred in this city of just over 250,000 people. Its football team was promoted to the Premier League for the first time in its history in 2008, raising Hull’s status on a national and international level. Then, in 2013, the city was unexpectedly named as the UK’s City of Culture for 2017. This was followed in 2014 by German engineering giant Siemens’ announcement that it would be investing an eventual £310m ($420m) in a wind turbine production plant within Hull’s Green Port renewable energy centre, which is based in its old docklands. A city that had for so long been the punchline to a joke few within its boundaries found funny seemed poised to have the last laugh.
But a year of cultural events and one foreign investment win – albeit a big one – do not necessarily fix a city’s long-term social and economic problems, nor guarantee a rush of further investment. So what comes next for Hull?
A favourable wind
Explaining his company’s decision to invest in Hull, Siemens UK chief executive Juergen Maier says: “There was a big opportunity for the offshore wind industry in the North Sea. It was clear we needed somewhere on the east coast of England, and Hull positioned itself very well in terms of having a vision for wanting to be the ‘energy estuary’, as they’re calling it. To us, that sounded exciting, as when we invest somewhere we don’t want to be a lone player, we want to be part of a growing and developing ecosystem.”
Within the city, Mark Jones, Hull City Council director of regeneration, says of the Siemens deal: “It was about location and readiness. We were able to develop a quay into the River Humber to meet Siemens’ needs in the timescale that was required. The result is 1000 jobs, most of which have gone to people within the local area.”
But what of Hull’s unwanted reputation as one of the UK’s more socially deprived cities? “The only conversation we had regarding Hull’s reputation was whether or not we could get the people with the right skills,” says Mr Maier. “But when we looked at the matter closer, there was more of an engineering ecosystem than many people would think. Then you’ve got some great names that have strong links with the city such as Smith & Nephew and BP. So for us it wasn’t about the image of the city, it was more about the skills we could get.”
The skills available in Hull have impressed more than just Siemens, however. Reckitt Benckiser, Indivior, Smith & Nephew, Croda International and Groupe Atlantic have all renewed, opened or announced intentions to build R&D centres in the city within the past few months. Meanwhile, the 1200-hectare Humber Enterprise Zone – within which Hull is located – is the largest in the UK, and is close to operating at full capacity. “It’s been one of the most successful enterprise zones in the country,” says Stephen Brady, leader of Hull City Council.
As the Siemens plant has been churning out wind turbines, Hull has been playing host to numerous music, theatre, arts and street events in its role as the UK’s City of Culture for 2017.
Hull was largely written off when bidding for the City of Culture title, with many pointing to its image as a decaying port city with high unemployment and poor education standards as reason to take the celebrations elsewhere. However, after beating Dundee, Swansea Bay and Leicester to the title, Hull has been given a new confidence, and the negative headlines about the city have given way to a series of rave reviews from numerous commentators being forced to think again about the much-maligned port.
“The City of Culture project has been designed to do two things: engage with the people of the city, and market the city on a national and international level as a place to visit, invest in, study and live,” says Martin Green, chief executive of the Hull City of Culture team. “Hull has always been a city of culture, we’re just shining a light on that. There is a change in the perception of the city. People know where it is now and no longer roll their eyes when they hear the name as they’ll know it is rich in history and culture and is a wonderful place to spend a few days.”
Addressing the negative image the city has suffered from over the past few decades has been a challenge that all connected with the City of Culture celebrations have been tackling head on. “We wanted to re-awaken a feeling of pride in the city,” says Mr Brady. “In the first week we had a Made in Hull film projected in the city’s main square that told the story of its history. About 350,000 people came to watch it. With that first event came a surge in pride and since then the city centre has been packed every weekend.”
A new force?
Hull, it would seem, is on a roll. But what next for the city? And how can it build, in particular, on its growing role as a hub for the wind power industry?
Hull is the nearest large city to the Hornsea Project, a series of three offshore windfarms located in the North Sea which, on completion, will be the largest in the world, with a planned total capacity of 6 gigawatts. Denmark’s Dong Energy was awarded a contract to build Hornsea Project Two in September, further cementing the status of Hull and its surrounding area as a global wind power hub.
“Siemens is the catalyst; the start of a journey,” says Mr Maier. “Hull should at the very least be one of the key world leaders in offshore wind technology. Nothing less. But that needs work, and the key thing that the city needs to do is work extremely hard to ensure that it creates an innovation hub, and supports the supply chain opportunities in this market.”
And there is a determination to carry through a legacy from the City of Culture celebrations too. “We have a cultural legacy plan that stretches on for 20 years,” says Mr Green. “Culturally it’s about capitalising on this year to make Hull a visitor destination. There’s a plan to build a cruise terminal here within 10 years; there’s a 3000-seater venue opening in 2018; the city’s theatre and art gallery have been refurbished. There’s a lot that is built to last.”
Hull’s transformation is far from complete, but the past few years have seen it reach a level of investment – $3bn since 2013, according to city council figures – few would have imagined possible at the turn of the millennium. There is a sense within the city that the good news story is just beginning, and the port once known as ‘the gateway to Europe’ has a genuine opportunity to restore itself to its former glories.