How Hull went from crap town to City of Culture

City of contrasts: Hull in September 2017. Image: Getty.

All over the city of Hull, sculptures of moths and toads commemorate two of the town’s greatest exports: the aviator Amy Johnson and her Gipsy Moth aircraft, and the poet Philip Larkin and his symbol for the world of work, the toad. These emblems of paralysis and flight represent the city’s conflicted nature and, at once insular and cosmopolitan, Hull mirrors the cultural rift at the heart of Brexit Britain.

Hull has historically been a cosmopolitan port, promoting international investment, industry and trade. It also produces influential art and culture. The Hull Truck Theatre, the eclectic Ferens Gallery and the Skelton Hooper dance school have nurtured a bevy of talented actors, artists and dancers. It is a city of poets: Stevie Smith was born in Hull, and Larkin, Andrew Motion and Douglas Dunn all worked at its university.

Hull has also been at the epicentre of major historical events. The English Civil War was triggered in 1642, when Hull’s dignitaries refused King Charles I entry to the town. The abolitionist William Wilberforce was born in Hull, and represented the city in parliament. And during World War II, Hull’s industrial and strategic importance meant it was targeted by the German Luftwaffe; more than 90 per cent of its homes were damaged in air raids.

Clearing the rubble. Image: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

Yet the city is also economically deprived, reactionary, xenophobic and emphatically anti-European. It is a city on the edge of nowhere, an hour by train to Doncaster or Leeds – which makes it, like all island communities, both inclusive and exclusive. It is a bleak, windswept place, isolated by vast tracts of flat land and the wastes of the North Sea, hemmed in by towering wind turbines. In 2003, Hull was awarded the dubious accolade of being the worst town in Britain; it has often been considered something of a joke by the outside world.


A place of paradoxes

In my time as Head of the School of Arts at the University of Hull, I have been enthralled and exasperated by these paradoxes. For all its contradictions, Hull – now in its final months as Britain’s 2017 City of Culture – has emphatically shown that it can be a forward-thinking, outward-facing place. During the first three months of the year, 90 per cent of Hull’s residents attended at least one City of Culture event. Yet it holds an uneasy truce with its neighbours in Europe.

A few miles downstream from the mighty Humber Bridge – once the longest suspension bridge in the world – stands a sculpture by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thorarinsdottir, erected to commemorate the city’s historic ties with her homeland. The statue is a replica; the original was stolen in 2011. Hull’s Lord Mayor at the time, Colin Inglis, condemned the theft as “an assault upon the traditions and culture of this city” – but perhaps it also exemplified them.

Inglis recalled how Hull trawlermen had once toiled in a spirit of mutual support with the people of Iceland. But he neglected to mention the Cod Wars – the confrontations between Icelandic and British fishing fleets which raged from the 1950s to the 1970s. A ceremony earlier this year sought to draw a line under that conflict, marking a reconciliation between the two nations with the symbolic exchange of ships’ bells. But the jury remains out on Hull’s commitment to internationalism.

Life after Brexit

This city of contraries has lately turned its back on the continent which once nourished it. In the 2016 EU referendum, 68 per cent of Hull’s electorate voted to leave Europe – despite pledges by the German industrial giant Siemens to invest £160m in a new plant to manufacture wind turbine blades and to create 1,000 new jobs in a city where more than a third of children live in poverty.

This Brexit-voting city may not be best served by its choice. In 2014, Hull had the highest rate of unemployment benefit claims in the country. Though the optimism during the run-up to Hull’s year as City of Culture boosted investment and jobs, it remains a place of economic and social precarity. During 2016, house prices in Hull rose nearly 17 per cent, but the average house price remained at only 44 per cent of the national mean. In late 2017, you could still buy a three bedroom property in Hull, including its very own fish-and-chip shop, for under £20K.

Cheap as chips. Image: spicygreenginger/Flickr/creative commons.

Hull’s 2017 cultural programme has offered a snapshot of the riches which the city has bred and attracted – from retrospectives on the works of poet Philip Larkin and director Anthony Minghella, to the BBC’s Night at the Proms. Yet in October 2017, the Humberside region reported a 62 per cent year-on-year rise in hate crimes, the majority of which were related to race. As was the case nationally, this increase saw a particular spike immediately after the EU referendum. It is difficult to reconcile this reality with the City of Culture’s admirable ideals.

The ConversationHull is perhaps better described as a city of its own culture; one which both welcomes and spurns the outside world. This little emblem of 2017’s riven Britain, in all its aspirations, openness and isolationism, remains an enthralling and exasperating place. Looking forward, Hull’s own socio-economic sustainability – such as it is – might offer a gauge for the fate of the nation, which this year chose Hull as its cultural capital.

Alec Charles is dean of the Faculty of Arts at The University of Winchester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.