Battle lines drawn over quest for spirit of a city

With museums, parks and its gallery facing cuts, spending £50,000 trying to get to the bottom of "the spirit" of a city would probably come way down most people's lists of priorities.

But an arts organisation in Hull has been awarded the cash by the Heritage Lottery Fund to try and nail the elusive concept of "Hullness".

A project manager is being employed with 12 volunteers to go out into the city and answer the question: "Is there such a thing as Hullness?

"Is it possible to find the spirit of a place in its street and houses and open spaces? If it is possible what is the "spirit of place" for Hull...and has this been influenced by the past or the present?"

The use of the money has drawn criticism at a time when the city council is facing 50m cuts, with savings being found from cutting opening hours and making museum and gallery staff work part-time.

Labour Group leader Coun Steve Brady said: "It beggars belief that at a time when museum staff are under threat and parks are going to be understaffed through budget cuts that they are wasting money like this, waffling about fashionable nonsense.

"We have a People's Panel set up across the city representing all sections of the population. You could easily get all the answers you need about the feelings of the people of Hull and it would be free of charge.

"This is typical of the Heritage Lottery and organisations like them who throw their money around."

Council leader Carl Minns said: "If you went down Whitefriargate now and asked what you would expect Heritage Lottery money to be spent on they would say museums, galleries, East Park, and I think if there is a choice between these sorts of developments and this I think the public choice would be very clear.

"I don't want to denigrate what they are doing but there are more cost-effective ways of doing it. The one thing we have in Hull is a very well developed community sector and I am sure through the structures that the city has it could be done at little or no cost."

Hull and East Riding co-ordinator of the Taxpayers Alliance Andrew Allison said: "They obviously don't get it. "We are supposed to be cutting back on spending and here they are wasting 50,000 of our money on a completely useless project. Why not have a nice debate at Hull City Hall at a fraction of the price? All Arc is trying to do is justify its existence."

The project is being run by the city's Arc architecture centre. Programme director Jo Byrne said the Lottery funding was ring-fenced for cultural and heritage projects.

She claimed it could serve a practical purpose as well as being a cultural exercise: "The idea is that it can be used by architects and anyone working in regeneration, people maybe wanting to promote the city.

"It's another angle. First and foremost it is a cultural and heritage project. It provides a snapshot of how the city sees itself at this point in time."

She added: "The Hullness project is a chance to share our thoughts about the city – past and present – and hopefully generate enthusiasm for what makes it unique."

The volunteers will be trained in "heritage techniques" such as gathering oral history and archiving, and there will be community events with the project culminating in a "multi-site" exhibition and an archive providing a picture of Hull in 2011 which will deposited with Hull History Centre.

Healthy ticket sales and being a larger share of funding means that the Heritage Lottery Fund have an extra 45m to spend.

The head of the Heritage Lottery Fund for Yorkshire and the Humber, Fiona Spiers, said: "This project has been awarded under our small grants scheme and was considered to be excellent, particularly in terms of value for money and benefits to the local community.

"In these tough economic times it is even more important that we continue to fund projects both large and small.

"We are committed to distributing our funds to the full breadth of heritage from large capital initiatives such as parks, historic buildings and landscapes, to smaller projects like this one in Hull, which focuses on delivering quality volunteering opportunities and offering local people the chance to get involved in the heritage around them."

She added: "Volunteering opportunities not only boost self esteem but can also offer participants the opportunity to learn much needed new skills and even a springboard to a new career."

THROUGH THE EYES OF A POET

If anyone can get to the grips with the spirit of Hull it has to be a poet. To Philip Larkin it was the "isolate city" which has "through centuries (held) her separate place".One-time Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison said 50 years ago that Hull "seems to be a sort of kingdom of its own". Others may say it's to be found on the city's football terraces, or down traditional streets like Hessle Road. For historian Ron Fairfax it's in the "unique" architecture: "It's in the small terraces off the streets that you can only get to on foot. It's the closeness. In the supermarket you don't get the bleep of the cost of the items, you get the life story of the girl who serves you."