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6 September 2019updated 14 Jul 2021 9:10am

Have the arts saved Hull?

Hull is UK City of Culture 2017, and a northern star on the rise.     

By Augusta Riddy

Humber Street, once part of the fruit market and then abandoned, is now a pedestrianised hub of breweries, galleries, cafes, and even a recording studio. A council initiative which keeps rent low is aimed at allowing independent businesses to establish themselves and grow, without fear of being priced out. Our guide, city culture and place manager Jon Pywell, becomes engaged in some back and forth about paying for our brownies; “I have to – I’m from the council!” No bribery allowed.

In 2013, Hull City Council launched its 10-year city plan, signalling the start of a programme of unprecedented investment and regeneration intended to transform the city for good. Since the launch, the city has seen £3.3bn of combined public and private investment, £240m of which has been ring fenced for cultural regeneration.

As part of this overarching plan Hull made a second bid, the first in 2013 being unsuccessful, to be UK City of Culture. This time it was successful, and as such the council was handed a hard deadline by which to rip out the city centre and overhaul its cultural landmarks. As council CEO Matt Jukes explains, “using the year [City of Culture] as a catalyst to invest very strategically in the city we’ve fitted what is really a three-year programme into 18 months … We were the orange barrier capital of the country for about 12 months.”

Hull has been seen as a national joke for as long as most of its inhabitants can remember, and a slew of mocking articles accompanied the event: “Hull marks becoming European capital of culture with fights every 47 SECONDS”; “Welcome to the UK’s Capital of Culture: Hull descends into drunken carnage just hours before it marked its new status as Britain’s ‘art city’”. In 2009 Hull was bottom of the UK prosperity index, and was the poorest city in Britain in terms of weekly wage. Martin Green, chief executive of Hull City of Culture 2017, says that “Hull for too long was told that it was no good, and if you tell anyone or anything that it’s no good for long enough they will start to believe that.” Culture, he says, “allows cities to find their own voice.”

In the first three months of the programme, nine out of ten Hull residents participated in a cultural event, a statistic that Green calls “staggering”. During that time over 1.4 million people visited the city, and hotel occupancy shot up by 18 per cent. Hull has seen the fastest drop in JSA claimants of any city in England. The council had planned to create 7,500 jobs over the course of its ten-year plan, and in five years it has already created 6,500. Green is in no doubt that culture can create tangible benefits for a deprived area like Hull. “The only annoyance is that we keep having to remind everyone. Culture is part of the welfare system … It makes better places to live, it makes confident people, it makes healthier people.”

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Alan Lane has parked his Airstream caravan in a suburban quay. His theatre company, Slung Low, is staging an explosive – literally – four-part play called Flood, which depicts a dystopian future in which England has been engulfed by a giant tidal wave. It is staged on a floating set in a dock, complete with balls of fire and pyrotechnics, and it addresses contentious issues like Brexit, which Hull voted for, and immigration. “The people of Hull are as interested in talking about their complicated positions on immigration as anyone else”. Tickets for the first show sold out in 24 hours. “The programme is both responding to what the city wants but also saying you don’t know you want this yet … that’s what great cultural leadership does.”

How does this all fit into the Northern Powerhouse? “I think if the Northern Powerhouse was an idea driven by Westminster,” says Green, “it has been adopted by the North as a way of talking about itself.” Although there has been what he describes as “a cooling off”, the North has taken ownership of the concept. With George Osborne’s departure from politics, local politicians aren’t holding their breath, “I think there’s a lot of potential in the Northern Powerhouse. Have we seen anything tangible in relation to that at the moment?” Jukes asks. “The answer is, not really.” The attitude now is to proceed with improving the region, with or without a Westminster-backed powerhouse. “I think [Hull] has, perhaps historically, been perceived as being a bit difficult. We are now being perceived as delivering and getting on with it.”

On one area for improvement everyone is agreed: the trains. “The f***ing trains don’t work!” exclaims Alan Lane, when the conversation wanders on to the subject of connectivity. “The thing you notice immediately is the shocking state of the trains” says Green. Journey times are lamented, at length, by everyone we meet. “There is no way it should take two hours to get to Manchester”; “if we could a train now to Liverpool we would be there for four and a half hours”; “it’s really not very far”; “it should not take an hour and 30 minutes to get to Leeds.”

This mismatch between local and national investment is a major concern for Hull. The council’s city plan has pumped millions back into the city, but it may prove hard to capitalise on this investment without wider infrastructural support. “We want to make the city self-sufficient but there are certain key facilitators that we need [the government] to help us with”, says Jukes. An example is the recent furore over the Department for Transport’s row-back on rail electrification in the North. “Hull was told that the rail electrification going west for us wasn’t happening early this year. For us that’s a major thing, but it was only when it started affecting Leeds and Manchester that it got the profile.” Another major complaint is the delay on the expansion of the A63, a dual carriageway which is the main route in and out of the city. Without greater capacity on the road – it becomes blocked daily – Hull is more inaccessible for visitors and goods. “That’s a Highways England responsibility road. It has been delayed and delayed and delayed.”

At time of writing, the Hull New Theatre has just been re-opened by the Royal Ballet after a £26m revamp. The Turner Prize exhibition will open in the Ferens Art Gallery, which has just received a £6m renovation, on the 26th September, and the winner will be announced in December. One of the billboards promoting the prize reads, “Whatever you think about Turner Prize 2017, you’re right”.

The city is about to embark on the fourth and final part of its year as City of Culture, so there is still time to spend a weekend discovering the historical sites, packed cultural programme, and budget-friendly beverages. For Matt Jukes, one crucial milestone has been achieved. “We’re on the [BBC news] weather map!” he exclaims. “We never were – there was a big gap between Norwich and Edinburgh.” The Humber tide is turning; Hull is on the map.

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