The city’s future prosperity depends on foreign investmentby David Lascelles / August 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
“Too much Hampstead, not enough Hull,” observed Labour’s Andy Burnham about the campaign to remain in the European Union. And how right he was. Hampstead may have set the tone, but Hull carried the day: 67 per cent of the city’s 250,000 people voted for Brexit. But why such a clear and defiant result? Hull’s future prosperity depends on foreign investment and EU markets—it doesn’t make sense.
Remainers would like to think that Hull would quickly wake up to its mistake, but when I visited in early July, the city had the calmness of a place saying: “I told you so.” It made a refreshing change from the gloom and outrage of north London. There was even an air of abandon. The pavements were still smeared with paint from the day before, when the city had been invaded by more than 3,000 naked men and women daubed in blue to create Spencer Tunick’s installation Sea of Hull. Not long before that, another artistic spectacle, Place des Anges, saw clouds of white feathers float down on the city, and its remains were still scattered about like snow.
These events were not a celebration of the referendum result but a run-up to Hull’s role as the UK’s City of Culture 2017—an upbeat initiative that will disguise any remorse it feels over the vote and provide warmth against economic chill. The centre is being smartened up, with old buildings restored, streets repaved and a massive programme of events planned. Forward-looking Hull is anything but a city that has just voted for self-annihilation.
But that’s the gloss. Something made Hull go for Brexit, and if Prime Minister Theresa May wants to build “one nation” then she needs to understand why.
Travelling there, I got a sense straight away of why Hull feels different. It is at least two and a half hours by rail from London, and for the last part a noisy diesel engine trundles along the north bank of the Humber estuary, a bleak natural barrier. Hull feels separate from the rest of East Yorkshire. Gradually, the outskirts take shape: housing estates, light industry, decaying brick factories, then suddenly you are in its magnificent railway station, a soaring early Victorian palace of arched glass and honey-coloured sandstone.
This was once a very prosperous city. The muddy little Hull River, which debouches into the Humber, was the starting point for a port that thrived on the export of Yorkshire wool and later on fishing. The glory days of the 18th century can still be perceived in the old quarter (or the part of it that escaped the Luftwaffe) with its narrow streets, handsome townhouses, hidden pubs and perpendicular church architecture. Those were the days of the “three day millionaires”—trawlermen back from long trips to the Arctic, their pockets full of cash and barely any time to spend it before the next anchor up. The old district commemorates the city’s most illustrious son, the abolitionist William Wilberforce, who has his own museum and towering monument like Nelson’s column. Its second most famous son, Philip Larkin, is celebrated in an intellectual, distracted-looking statue at the railway station.
The 19th century bequeathed fine municipal buildings with exuberant sculptural embellishments. Benefactors left their mark, like businessman Thomas Ferens, after whom the city’s art gallery is named. And up until the Second World War, Hull was a transit point for Europeans heading for a new life in America. They came from the continent before being shipped to Liverpool to take an Atlantic steamer. But many ended up staying, providing Hull with a large immigrant population.
Thanks to this legacy, Hull does not have quite the hollowed-out feel of other Yorkshire towns which have seen better days. The centre bustles: the ports have been replaced with marinas and leisure centres, and dingy streets have been blotted out by glassy shopping malls. If Hull has a dismal reputation—in 2003, it was voted the worst town in the UK—the reason lies more on the outskirts, in the housing estates which sprawl into the countryside. They look inoffensive: roads lined with trees and grass verges, whitewashed semis, occasional shopping parades. But this is mid-20th century planning, which delivered orderliness, quantity and little to nourish the mind.
The blow that felled Hull in the 1970s was the death of fishing: cod wars, the Common Fisheries Policy and overfishing. Since then it has been one thwarted recovery after another, driving unemployment in the wake of the banking crisis up to 15 per cent. Hull doesn’t lack for industries, the Humber region is big in shipping, chemicals, engineering, food and so on. But these are mature and it needs something new. A Humber development plan was put together to focus on key industries such as green energy, health products and digital services, which generated a promise of £1bn in investment by businesses. Unemployment has fallen sharply to 5 per cent, the national average.
Siemens chose Hull as the location for its North Sea wind turbine business, a £310m project with 1,000 jobs that may well pave the way for associated industries. At the other end of the scale, the outlying industrial estates are now the heart of the British caravan industry with a big export market in Europe. Hull University has a large international research and student exchange programme which is heavily dependent on EU connections and funding. The irony is that Brexit could thwart Hull’s recovery once again. But though the city council passed a resolution urging its citizens to vote Remain, only one voter in three took notice.
As elsewhere in England, there are deeper feelings at work. The Hull Remain camp blamed xenophobia for the result, but the city has long history of international trade and migration, and a non-white population of nearly 11 per cent, well below the 16.5 per cent average in England and Wales. If there is a problem, it lies more with Eastern Europeans—Hull’s Leave campaigners were able to exploit anti-Polish sentiment. The point is more the relationship with London. Many of the people I spoke to used the words “they” and “them” often in conversation to refer to those in Westminster. There is a sense of being let down by the government, which may have its origins in Britain’s sell-out on the Common Fisheries Policy.
The depth of this divide is something that Hull’s scorned MPs will have to address. All three are Labour, ex-minister Alan Johnson (West Hull and Hessle) led the party’s In campaign and was accused of pressuring his constituents with scare stories. Another, Hull North’s Diana Johnson, wanted to Remain but undermined her position by banging on about the city’s funding being diverted by central government to “richer areas.” She put her finger on one thing that fires people in Hull up: transport. Despite many promises from Westminster, electrification of the railway into Yorkshire and thence to the rest of the country, has failed to materialise. I was told that, for international connections, it was quicker to fly from Humberside airport to Amsterdam’s Schiphol than it is to travel to another UK hub. The belief that the Humber Bridge solved Hull’s isolation problem 35 years ago is wildly out of date.
I agree with councillor Colin Inglis, the former leader of the city council, who told the Hull Daily Mail that the vote was “a cry of rage” from “people who think their lives have been made worse by what has happened to the world over the last 20 to 30 years,” even if the reality is that their lives have got better. Lord Haskins, chairman of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership and a veteran Europhile, said in a similar vein, “I think it was more a general discontent with the system and a vote against that system. Clearly, a lot of people living in places like Hull felt they were getting a raw deal out of life at the moment.”
It is still early days. Juergen Maier, CEO of Siemens UK, has said the company remained “totally committed” to Hull. BAE Systems, another large local employer, stated it will be unaffected by Brexit. And, who knows, could leaving the EU bring the fishing back? Lord Haskins thinks the situation will be “manageable” so long as access to the single market is preserved. He is now working with the council on a Brexit strategy, part of which will be to prevent further widening of the north-south gap. “Hull needs London”, I was told by City Hall. Whether the Northern Powerhouse adds anything to this, we remain to learn. The early signs are that a regional approach will be dropped in favour of a policy which focuses more on individual cities. Hull will have to make its case.
If nothing else, Hull has made its voice heard, and Theresa May has promised to listen. As I took my train south to home I was not filled with foreboding. I realised that everyone I had met had been cheerful, or putting a brave face on it. And that is certainly more than the furious people I was returning to were capable of.