How London Docklands can inspire resurgence of Hull and Humber – Diana Johnson

IT is ironic that inequalities have widened since 2014 since the Northern Powerhouse was launched six years ago.

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After years of Yorkshire council leaders talking just to each other, and then to Whitehall, Hull faces the mid-2020s, a decade into the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, not even at this start line but behind other Northern cities such as Leeds.

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The Government’s new ‘Towns Fund’ includes selected cities, such as Lincoln and Wolverhampton, where Conservatives made general election gains. It excludes Hull – despite our needs. Hull will also lose further council funding next year.

Could London Docklands-style planning powers transform the Humber?

After recent talks a deal for a Humber combined authority appeared back on, with devolved powers over economic regeneration, skills, transport and the green energy sector. Elected mayors – Whitehall’s ‘one size fits all’ requirement – had apparently been parked. The two Humber South Bank councils were supposedly supportive. It’s now clear that they’re not. What now?

In Prime Minister’s Questions I asked Boris Johnson whether, given his wish to be known as a ‘Brexity Hezza’, he would give Humber Docklands ​the sustained support that Michael Heseltine gave to London Docklands from the 1980s. His response was potentially significant: “That is among the schemes that we are certainly looking at.”

The London Docklands experience has lessons for the similarly distinct Humber Docklands economic area. East London’s economic challenges in 1980 had much in common with the Humber’s now – as does the political arithmetic at Westminster and council leaders spending years talking inconclusively amongst themselves.

From 1981, London Docklands began decades of transformation in which the fortunes of East London and East Yorkshire diverged dramatically. The catalyst was an Urban Development Corporation. This temporary business-led body, existing only 17 years, worked across several London boroughs – straddling the historic county boundaries of the Thames and the Lea.

Dame Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull North.

It was lean, heavy on power to drive change, but light on bureaucracy – taking key planning powers. No new layer of local government was added – elected mayors came later.

Up to 1998, it oversaw £1.86bn in public investment, worth far more adjusted for inflation, and levered in four times this in private money. It upgraded transport infrastructure, reclaimed land, boosted skills and house-building. Between 1981 and 1998 employment in the area increased by 50,000. Many of the new jobs were high-paid – retail and leisure jobs followed.

When planning powers returned to the boroughs the impetus already created continued for over 20 years – 
and continues now. Transport capital investment has been similarly lavish since the Millennium. Hull Paragon Station and Canary Wharf Crossrail inhabit the same country, but different worlds.

With an economy rebuilt around specialisms in financial services and the media, London Docklands weathered the 2008 banking crisis, was central to attracting the 2012 Olympics and looks resilient enough to face Brexit with confidence.

What can be done to transform the economic and social fortunes of Hull and the Humber?

The Humber has seen local achievements over the past decade, much of it through cross-party co-operation – all done without reorganising local government. This included Siemens and UK City of Culture; establishing the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership and an Enterprise Zone. Ron Dearing Urban Technology College was built. Humber Bridge tolls were halved. Kingswood’s housing development continues apace.

However, empty shops, job losses and widespread low pay remind us that there’s much more to do. We have a clear idea of potential growth sectors around which Humber Docklands can thrive, including green technologies, pharmaceuticals and freeports.

With Yorkshire-wide devolution and the Humber combined authority evidently now dead, what about a different approach for Humber Docklands that leaves county identities untouched and sets no pre-condition about permanent municipal reorganisation or any extra tier of government?

Few want Humberside County Council recreated, but we need more local clout than existing bodies such as Transport for the North – that pale shadow of Transport for London. Could ‘Humber Docklands’ happen? Yes, if Ministers give it enough priority to let no vested interest stand in the way.

Hull was the UK City of Culture in 2017.

Dame Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.