Diana Johnson: Our proud City of Culture can start to banish the vultures

Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin
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ONE grey Saturday in October, I found myself rushing across Hull to meet a Sky News reporter to defend my city against a controversial article in The Economist singling Hull out as a “failing” northern town.

It said that “governments should not try to rescue failing towns”, and talented residents should move elsewhere in the country for work.

With this memory still fresh, I was all the more delighted that Phil Redmond and the other independent judges gave the free market enthusiasts at The Economist the perfect answer: making Hull the UK City of Culture for 2017.

Hull won against strong competition, thanks to a fantastic effort by the Hull bid team, our business community, the voluntary sector and Hull’s Labour council.

With The Deep, two theatres, great museums and a thriving music, arts, media, culture and sports scene, everyone who knows Hull could see the potential for winning City of Culture status – even after the disappointment of a previous bid in 2010. In the words of the famous T-shirt: “It’s never dull in Hull!”

People in Hull have always known our potential, but getting City of Culture will allow us to show the world.

We will be able to demonstrate our strong heritage as a fishing port, but also our thriving local arts scene and the passion of Hull people for the arts from music to poetry to theatre.

I believe it was this passion – demonstrated across a whole series of local festivals and backed up with a huge social media campaign – which set Hull’s bid apart.

Alongside the arts and cultural scene, the related areas of tourism and the digital economy also have great potential for Hull. With the city being hit so severely by private and public sector job losses, and evidence of genuine poverty being seen every day in our food banks, Hull certainly needs every possible boost and renewal for our local economy.

This news should mean much-needed investment, especially in arts and culture, but it also has potential for boosting wider regeneration in Hull.

We need those local jobs, especially the full-time well-paid jobs that add spending power and demand to our local economy. These are the jobs that have been lost from Hull in their thousands over the past few years.

After the great news on the City of Culture bid, we now need the even bigger boost from Siemens taking the final step to bring those vital green energy jobs to Hull. The Government could assist this by demonstrating less confusion and more consistent long-term support for renewables.

While hoping that being City of Culture will bring new sources of investment to Hull, there are a few notes of caution. Hull’s local authority is losing £94m of core Whitehall funding between 2010 and 2015 – a third of Hull’s spending power.

This means Hull, the country’s 10th most deprived area, is losing £228.36 in Government funding per head of population in this Parliament. Meanwhile, Surrey Heath loses only £24.54 per head in the same period. This is why I launched the Fair Deal for Hull campaign earlier this year.

Developing Hull’s cultural offering towards 2017 is not made easier by our local authority’s far worse treatment than wealthier areas. It could mean Hull struggling just to provide basic statutory services, with a squeeze on arts and culture, tourism and regeneration funding. Moreover, we all saw the recent figures 
about the London bias of arts funding.

More optimistically, I hope that the Government’s acceptance of Lord Heseltine’s recent proposals on devolving regeneration funding to Local Economic Partnerships will actually mean further good news for Hull.

Devolved funding would enable us to host an even better year of culture in 2017. We shall see.

It would now also be great to see prestigious arts and cultural events, such as the Booker and Turner Prize, coming to Hull in 2017. I’ll be pushing for this to happen.

By being City of Culture, Hull has proved beyond all doubt that we are a city of aspiration, ambitious about becoming more prosperous and a great place to live and work.

We’re a city with a great past, with our connection to William Wilberforce and much else, but also a city striving in the present to secure a great future.

In all of this, despite the mocking over the years from critics, Hull people are deadly serious.

We’re not Larkin about!

* Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.