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.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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