Diana Johnson: Why not tell our city’s positive stories?

City of Culture will put Hull in the global spotlight.

City of Culture will put Hull in the global spotlight.

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I COULD not agree less with the Legatum Institute’s recent report into prosperity in Hull, which described a city gripped by a “poverty of aspiration.”

We already know about the chequered economic history of Hull – of how the loss of our fishing industry led to a period of decline. There is nothing new in this and I fail to see the benefit of re-telling a story that has been told a thousand times before. Instead, the Legatum Institute should work with us on a more positive agenda to explore how we can forge a new future for the city.

Next year, a £310m investment in Siemens is going to bear fruit, creating 1,000 new jobs. The largest wind farm in the world will be built off the coast, supplying clean energy to nearly half a million households. Reckitt Benckiser has set aside £150m to build a state-of-the-art Centre of Scientific Excellence here.

The City Council and Associated British Ports have also stepped in to secure Hull’s future as a renewable energy hub, contributing £200m and £140m each. Hull University – already a long-standing research institution, and the founding place of the LCD TV – is set to share in this by investing more in local technical education.

All this comes on top of the huge commitments we are set to see for City of Culture next year. There will be daily events, in every single neighbourhood. Every resident is being reached out to and given the chance to share in a city-wide celebration of Hull’s heritage. Hull 2017 will set a new high water mark for cultural celebrations of this kind.

I find it astonishing that the Legatum Institute’s report makes no mention of Hull’s renewable energy sector. It also fails to really get to the heart of what a broad-ranging, inclusive project City of Culture 2017 looks set to be. The fact that Hull City Council has managed to secure this investment in the context of drastic central Government cuts – to the tune of £310 per person – is remarkable. Less deprived councils have not seen anything near the same reductions in spending.

But it is the criticism of the people of Hull that angers me most of all. I simply cannot agree with the claim that there is a “poverty of aspiration” in the city.

They should try levelling that accusation at the 2,000 people who have already signed up to volunteer for Hull 2017, or the 60,000 schoolchildren who are set to participate in the programme. It is also hard to say that of the 17,000 people who have applied for the first 450 jobs at Siemens’ blade factory in Hull.

The Hull I see does not match this description. I don’t see a poverty of aspiration in the ambitious eyes of the local students in the schools I visit. Hull, more than any other city, is a tightly-woven community of people with a strong sense of identity and a shared stake in its future. We have high hopes for the years to come, but we know that we need a fair deal from central government to truly cement the gains we’ve made.

The Legatum Institute’s efforts would be better-directed at helping us to secure a fair deal for Hull, and I hope they will consider supporting three simple asks of central Government.

First, the Government should permanently devolve cultural funding to the north of England. The regional gap in cultural spending is a national 
disgrace. Second, we need to get on with investing in world-class east-west railway links – not just from Liverpool to Hull, but every area in between. The current state of the North’s lines leaves much to be desired, and I am still waiting to hear from the Department for Transport about plans to electrify the Hull-to-Selby line. How can the Department for Transport find £500m for a Crossrail station at Canary Wharf and £175m for a Thames garden bridge, but nothing for Hull’s roads or railways? The Government needs to get its act together.

Third, Hull needs to be able to fight its corner in the international trade negotiations set to come with Brexit. The real prize for Siemens’ investment would be access to the single market for renewable energy, but I don’t think Trade Secretary Liam Fox has our best interests at heart.

For the first time in a long while, Hull now has a positive story to tell the world. This story bears little resemblance to the negative message put forward by the Legatum Institute. It is a city brimming with new hopes and ready to earn its rightful stake in the country’s future. Rather than constraining us to our past, I would welcome their thoughts on how we should contribute to this new revival.

Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.

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