Report: Ten Towns Hull: confidence is rising, but so is the Brexit risk


Kingston-Upon-Hull has just put itself on the map – literally. The city won a spot on the BBC’s UK weather map last month, after three years of lobbying. All round, rising morale is palpable, and investment is flowing in – including a £310 million factory built by Siemens.

So why did Hull vote so decisively to cut ties with the European Union? And what happens next?

CommonGround went to Hull to find out. We interviewed political leaders, businessmen, entrepreneurs, migrants, youth workers and people on the street to understand their hopes and fears, and what Brexit means. Here are seven takeaways about what’s making Hull tick.

  1. Hull has a strong local identity

People in Hull often talk about their sense of “grit”. But the 250,000-strong city is still scarred by a perception that it was let down during past crises. World War 2, the collapse of the fishing industry and the floods of 2007 were all moments where Hull residents felt they had been hung out to dry by the rest of the country.

  1. City of Culture could be a game-changer

That title, which Hull takes up on Jan. 1, has driven investment in the city centre, and a sense that the city can polish its less-than-ideal image in rest of the country. Tourist draws like aquarium The Deep are already seeing more foreign footfall – helped by a weaker pound – although some residents aren’t convinced CoC will live up to expectations or that the significant building works in progress will be finished.

  1. Growth is happening…

Siemens is Hull’s big win. Its new wind turbine blade factory will employ 1,000 people, mostly from Hull. Smith & Nephew, a local business, is investing too. Brexit ought not to have a significant effect on those, and recent data shows business activity is strong. There’s even a hipster-friendly tech hub, C4DI. But Hull’s port business – adjacent to key European markets and still the heart of the city – could be at risk from leaving the single market.

  1. …but not everyone is benefitting

Hull, like many cities, faces poverty and inequality, and as many as 1 in 4 people over 16 don’t work. Food scarcity is a problem, addressed partly through food banks, and initiatives run by schools and groups like The Warren Youth Project. Some programmes, though, rely significantly on funding from Europe, which might be at risk after Brexit.

  1. Hull is divided – but not the way you might think

The big rift in Hull isn’t just rich/poor or leave/remain – it’s Hull’s relationship with its richer neighbours in East Yorkshire. That’s where one-third of Hull’s workforce lives – but many Hull citizens feel the fruits aren’t evenly spread. A study calling for the two to merge was not warmly received. Meanwhile, the Northern Powerhouse initiatives have so far passed Hull by.

  1. Confidence is rising, despite Brexit

Faith in Hull’s ability to get things done is growing – a great sign. Reasons include a reversal of unhelpful local policies, slow but steady improvement in education and local businesses investing. This, though, seems to be softening some negativity around an EU exit. Several people said they voted to remain, but were relaxed about leaving.

  1. Migration creates tensions, but economics worsen them

Negative views on migration were easy to find. But concerns were often accompanied by claims that the city is “friendly” – even by migrants themselves. Hull has absorbed waves of migrants before and its non-UK born population isn’t that big in relative terms. But cuts to spending have left many city dwellers feeling there isn’t enough to go round.

A good Brexit is… One that increases tourist flows into the city, and preserves the advantages of Hull’s geographical position adjacent to large European markets – while ensuring funding for important social projects doesn’t disappear.

A bad Brexit is… One that creates rising prices for a population that is still in large numbers unemployed and on low incomes, or that affects demand for the manufacturing sector and trade volumes through the city’s all-important port.

By John Foley