IT seems appropriate that the jaw-dropper to open Hull’s year as UK City of Culture was a piece of modern engineering.
Blade was a 75m-long wind turbine arm, reinterpreted as a stunning public sculpture by multi-media artist Nayan Kulkarni. The fibreglass structure was one of the first to be produced at German corporation Siemens’ newly-opened £310m factory, and was transported overnight the three-and-a-half miles to Queen Victoria Square to be installed in such a way that double-decker buses could pass underneath its point.
It was a bold statement with which to launch Made in Hull, the culture year’s opening event, which featured a series of light and sound spectaculars exploring the city’s rollercoaster economic fortunes.
Blade was a physical representation of what creative director Sean McAllister described as a “moment of hope” for the city. It had seen investment not just from Siemens but in the shape of a £200m energy plant by engineers Spencer Group and a £100m R&D centre for Reckitt Benckiser’s healthcare and hygiene products.
And the potential for culture to act as a catalyst for economic development was woven into Hull’s 2017 plans from early on. The word ‘legacy’ featured no fewer than 44 times in the business plan. It spoke of fusing education and skills development with inspirational programming to create a “catalyst for jobs creation”, ensuring knowledge and experience were retained by using local supply chains.
“When people judge whether we used our time in the spotlight effectively, they will first ask whether we delivered an unforgettable year,” the document read. “But when that immediate memory passes we will be measured by those residents working in a vibrant economy benefitting from ongoing inward investment with the skills secured locally to ensure we can transform our city forever.”
It was a bold ambition but the early signs have been good.
“Industry is booming, tourism is on the up, perceptions of Hull are changing for the better globally and there is an increased optimism and sense of aspiration in the city,” says Darren Peacock, of Peacock Finance.
Interest in property grew by 40% in the first six months of the year against the same period in 2016, he says, with investors from China, France, Italy, Germany and Hungary looking to snap up houses for a third of the price they might pay in Leeds or Manchester.
“The arrival of Siemens has had a massive knock-on effect in many ways,” says Peacock, who helps companies source finance to expand. “Not just in terms of people employed at the factory itself, but also other companies that are within its supply chain.
“This combination of factors is bringing in talent and investment, and I think these are the kinds of things that change the whole dynamic of a place forever.”
Solicitor Nick Miller agrees, describing a “perfect storm of positivity, working in an infectious way across businesses”. He says his firm, James Legal, has dealt with property transactions involving investment from across the UK and abroad.
“Home-grown businesses in fields from technology to retail, manufacturing and accommodation are also capitalising on the feel-good factor. In many cases, they are scaling up to seize the opportunities created by developments like the new Siemens factory.”
His firm teamed up with Department for International Trade advisers, local SMEs, business support groups, the Hull and Humber Chamber and Local Enterprise Partnership to run its James Legal – The Business 2017 campaign, aimed at helping the region’s businesses to seize the ‘once-in-a generation 2017 opportunity’.
“A lot of the companies we deal with now have the welcome problem that they are growing faster than they ever expected,” Miller adds.
One example of this is Pearson Electrical, which has capitalised on the drive to make East Yorkshire a world-leading green energy base. The marine, industrial and hazardous areas specialist has secured contracts to maintain the two imposing vessels owned by A2SEA, which transport the parts manufactured at the Siemens plant out to North Sea wind farms.
Its managing director Mark Pearson says: “Our company is growing at its fastest pace ever. We have grown five-fold from just three employees three years ago, to 15 today.” Annual turnover has increased by 20%.
But how big a part did the city’s year in the spotlight play in this? Was green energy, rather than culture, the catalyst?
A cultural strategy drawn up by the city council last year argues they go hand-in-hand: “When large employers like Siemens or RB consider investing in a city like Hull, the cultural offer is part of the decision-making process. Employers are looking for a complete city experience: with a skilled workforce, a vibrant city centre, great culture, good transport and connectivity.”
A report on the early months of culture year said hotel occupancy was up 13.8%, with hotels twice as likely to be more than 80% full as in 2016. More than half of city centre businesses reported a positive impact in terms of increased footfall, sales, diversification of customers and a positive atmosphere. Some 37% of those had increased turnover and more than a quarter of them were enjoying higher profits.
Hull’s cultural strategy spelled out hopes that this would support new independent retailers, businesses and pop-ups, helping them to make the most of the city’s spare building capacity. The document’s small print added: “Business planning will be crucial, to guide start-ups past the 2017 spike in custom, to a sustainable future.”
Dr Beatriz Garcia, of Liverpool’s Institute of Cultural Capital, has been analysing the impact of culture-led regeneration for two decades.
“It’s for local business clubs to develop initiatives to make sure people know it’s worth going back,” she says. “I’m confident that will happen.”
Garcia reported on the wider effects of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture and is embarking on a further evaluation a decade on. She says Hull has built on the experience of the city at the opposite end of the M62, in terms of ‘aligning narratives’ from the cultural and business communities.
“In terms of storytelling, Hull has done well,” she says. “They have been very clever about the way of putting out information. It’s helping the city position itself, make a noise and get people talking, and helping business feel more comfortable that they can thrive and attract talent.
“The importance of giving an image of a place that’s not just about fun and study and party but also work and professional development can’t be underestimated.”
Images: Hull News and Pictures