The transformation of Hull ahead of it becoming UK City of Culture next year has turned the city centre into a building site. Chris Bond spoke to some of the businesses affected.
Walking down historic Parliament Street with its impressive townhouses, colourful hanging baskets and period lamp posts is a pleasant experience. And then you reach Whitefriargate... where you are greeted by a sea of orange barriers stretching down the street.
It’s a similar picture across large parts of the city centre where these ubiquitous barriers and the dug up streets they frame have turned the heart of Hull into a giant building site – part of an ambitious £25m redevelopment that is billed as the largest project of its kind in the city since the clean-up operation following the Blitz.
This major renovation which includes repaving many of the main pedestrian routes and installing new public art, trees, lighting and seating is all part of a wider ten-year city plan to transform Hull into a thriving business, tourism and leisure “destination”.
It is tied to Hull’s role as UK City of Culture 2017 which begins in just over four months and once finished could help establish Hull as one of the North of England’s finest cities after years spent languishing in the doldrums.
At the moment, though, the city centre is an eyesore and there’s no pretending otherwise. And the promise of what’s to come is of little consolation to those shops on the coal face that are struggling to stay afloat due to the roadworks. Some, like Home Comforts Cafe on Carr Lane, have already had to shut.
Work started last October and Hull City Council and the contractors, Eurovia, insist it is on schedule and the bulk of it will be completed by the end of December.
Speak to some locals, though, and they grumble about the length of time it’s taking to get done. At Queen Victoria Square there’s a warren of often single lane walkways that people have had to navigate for months now.
On nearby Trinity House Lane, Bob Carver’s Fish and Chip Restaurant is among the shops and businesses that have seen customer numbers dwindle.
It’s lunchtime and the upstairs restaurant is empty save for a single diner. Carol Carver is co-owner of the restaurant and claims the renovation work has had a massive impact. “It’s costing us money to stay open,” she says. “We’re about 60 per cent down and we’ve had to lay off some staff,” she says.
“Listening to customers they say it’s difficult to negotiate all the barriers because they keep being moved around from one week to the next. It’s very difficult for people in wheelchairs or people with prams.”
Carol, who has been working at the family restaurant for 38 years says this is the worst period she can remember in terms of customer numbers. “You get bad weather and bad winters but we’ve never known it like this all the years we’ve been here.”
Hull City Council says it has made a point of speaking to all those businesses affected by the work and is keeping them updated. “If it’s going to look the way they say then it will be fantastic,” says Carol. “They say the work will be done on time – it would be an embarrassment to the city if it’s not.”
In the meantime they have to struggle on. “I don’t want to sound defeatist and we’re not whining, but we’re working harder than ever before for less. We’re going to try to carry on and just hope we get the return.”
Speak to some of those at the indoor market next door and you hear a similar story. “It’s affected footfall massively and it’s been like this for months. People don’t want to come into Hull,” says Dennis Thornham, who runs a fruit and vegetable shop.
“I’m sure it will be fantastic but at the moment it’s very tough trading conditions. This should be one of our busiest days but today it’s exceptionally quiet. A lot of our customers are retired and they don’t want to fight their way around.”
Phil Johnson who co-owns Robbie Johnsons, a coffee and tea shop on Carr Lane, says the redevelopment work is having an adverse impact on business and reckons they are £50,000 down compared to like for like periods in previous years. “In September we’ll have been here 12 years and I can honestly say this is our worst year and I’ve got to put it down to all the roadworks.”
He says the temporary bus stops have put people off coming into the centre. “The road was closed in both directions for weeks and now it’s open in one direction,” he says.
Phil admits it’s getting near the stage where they may have to look at reducing the number of hours employees are working. “I’d rather cut hours than get rid of people.”
He remains unconvinced that once the work is completed people will start flocking to Hull. “What are they going to come for, to see some nice pavements?”
There is no doubt that the work has caused upheaval, but this feels like a city on the rise. At the same time it has to be said that perhaps the most important transformation in Hull’s history was always going to take time and lead to some disruption. And so it is proving.
In a sense it has been the victim of its own success. Few people, if truth be told, really believed Hull would get chosen to become City of Culture so when it won it meant some of the plans had to be brought forward.
Originally the ‘public realm’ work was due to be carried out over a four or five-year period but this has been condensed into 18 months to ensure that the majority of it will be done by the end of this year, leaving just a few public areas to be finished by next March.
Garry Taylor, head of major projects at Hull Council, points out that shops in the city centre were closing before the work started and that the antiquated public spaces needed a dramatic overhaul.
“The city centre had been in decline in recent decades and this is part of a much wider drive to turn the city centre economy around,” he says.
“The condition of some of our public space was appalling due to decades of under investment in the late 80s and early 90s, and when we consulted with businesses they kept saying that we needed to do something with this space.”
Beforehand there was a proliferation off low grade property in the city centre, something that is already changing behind the scenes with more Grade A office space being created. “We’ve got interest from restaurants, smaller boutique shops and larger retailers.”
He says it’s crucial that this work is carried out. “This will be the greatest benefit to the city in decades and if we had not put this plan into action the city would still be in decline.
“This type of investment at this pace was always going to be disruptive and we apologised for that. But we are doing this to ensure the city is sustainable. We want people from places like Leeds and Manchester to come here and spend money here. We want to grow the whole economy.”
Transformation of Hull city centre
Ferens Art Gallery – this is undergoing a £4.5m refurbishment ahead of hosting The Turner Prize exhibition next year – only the fourth city outside London to host the event.
Fruit Market – in April plans were unveiled for an £80m regeneration of Hull’s Fruit Market, branded the city’s cultural and creative quarter. The idea is to create an “urban village” with business, arts and leisure uses alongside new homes in the district’s warehouses and cobbled streets.
Trinity Market and old town – this includes a £1.6m upgrade of the market Trinity Market which will revitalise the 115-year-old landmark.
Other projects include a £16m upgrade of Hull New Theatre, while a new 3,500 music and conference centre, a legacy project, is due to be completed in 2018.