When Mark Jones started his career as a shipping clerk importing Scandinavian timber through Alexandra Dock, little did he know that he would end up helping to lead the rebirth of one of Britain’s great port cities.
Since he was appointed head of economic development at Hull City Council in 1999, he has helped attract billions of pounds of investment to the city, overseeing its transformation from an end-of-the-line image of neglect to one of the UK’s most impressive exemplars of 21st-century regeneration.
And he’s not finished yet.
“We were very severely hit in the financial crisis of 2008-09,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“Our unemployment rate went right up to around 18 per cent. So we launched a City Plan back in 2012-13, which had two main strands: how we support our manufacturing economy and grow it, and how we secure a quality visitor destination in the city centre.”
Since then, Croda International, Smith & Nephew and Groupe Atlantic have all developed multi-million-pound R&D facilities in the area, and Hull stalwart RB (formerly Reckitt Benckiser, maker of Dettol, Lemsip and Nurofen) created 200 jobs when it opened a new £105m Science and Innovation Centre in the city – and has committed £95m to upgrading its manufacturing facilities there.
“The Reckitt Benckiser one was really something for me,” said Mr Jones, who was awarded an MBE in 2016 for his services to leading Hull’s regeneration and investment.
“When I first started work, Reckitts in Hull were the company to work for – I wasn’t bright enough to work for them! – and to see them flourishing in the city is truly amazing.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, is the £310m Siemens Gamesa wind-turbine blade factory at Green Port Hull, which has already provided thousands of local jobs and could create ten of thousands more if plans to develop the so-called Energy Estuary come to fruition over the next decade.
But despite the conspicuous successes of the industrial component of the city’s recovery plan, Mr Jones says the biggest transformation in Hull has come from the other side of the blueprint: in the city centre.
“It’s true, the manufacturing sector over the last five to seven years has become much stronger, but it’s the public realm that has changed the most over the last 20 years,” he said
“It had got pretty shoddy over successive decades. When you look back at the old photographs of the late Victorian, Edwardian period you see those public spaces absolutely full of people, and it dawned on me that this is a city built for crowds.
“It’s a bit ironic at the moment, with what’s going on in terms of social distancing, but it is a city which was very much built for people.”
In an effort to regain that popular glory, Hull bid to be UK City of Culture 2017 and won – a victory that saw a wave of investment in the city centre, led by the council, which ploughed over £80m into the public realm.
The Ferens Art Gallery and Hull New Theatre both benefited, the old Fruit Market quarter was refurbished and the 3,500-capacity Bonus Arena was built to bring the city’s entertainment offer up to scratch.
Hull’s year as UK City Culture – a title unthinkable not many years ago – saw 5.3 million people attend over 2,800 events, cultural activities, installations and exhibitions, and has had a lasting legacy.
“Reputation-wise it did us a power of good,” said Mr Jones. “The city got behind it, and our City of Culture volunteers are still with us, providing support into communities and for events, and are also heavily involved in the current response to the COVID threat. So that alone was capacity that was built from people in Hull coming together to capitalise on the City of Culture and who are now a fundamental part of our culture.”
Hull’s regeneration is perhaps all the more impressive given the challenges it faced. It was not just recovering from the 2008 recession, or even the long slow decline of its traditional industries.
Shockingly, one of the city’s latest regeneration projects is the redevelopment of the Albion Square car-park – the city’s last large Second World War bombsite.The £130m plans will see a new shopping, leisure and housing development and a new ice arena built in the heart of Hull.
Mr Jones said: “We’re trying to build on the success of our Fruit Market development, animating the city centre through living.”
He added: “If somebody had said to me 10 years ago ‘you’ve got a very high level of office demand’, I’d have said ‘you must be joking’, but now, because people like the mix in Hull – the beautiful spaces, the leisure and the hospitality offer – office staff actually want to be in the city centre, so we’ve got quite a demand for new offices there and we see that very much as the future.”
Mr Jones also helped to secure the largest ever grant allocation – £15m – from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the £28m refurbishment of the historic North End Shipyard, which built HMS Bounty, among many others.
This all makes Hull sound like a hive of redevelopment activity and until recently it was, but coronavirus has given the city’s building sites a deserted look all too reminiscent of the abandoned industrial sites that used to line the Humber, yet life is beginning to return.
“Some of the producer factories around Hull are going back into production or gearing up for production, and supply-chains are starting to be reactivated,” said Mr Jones.
“While this virus is around we’ll never get back to where we were three months ago, but we do need to get the economy moving, so the council looks to play its part in that.”
He said: “Hull’s fortunate that we are a port city – we are external-looking to the world, not just by our nature – so we’re open to investment, to new ideas, to people coming and going.
Mr Jones added: “There’s still a lot to do here, but I’m confident Hull will rise to the challenge. I don’t think it was an accident that the Heritage Lottery Fund gave us its biggest award last year. They know that we invest it wisely.”
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