Through Hull and high water: the city that came good

It seemed condemned to terminal decline, but now the former fishing centre is to become the home of a vast wind turbine industry and has been chosen as the UK’s City of Culture. The football team's not doing too badly, either

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The Independent Online

For more than a generation Hull has struggled to recover from the decimation of its deep sea fishing industry.

Excoriated as Britain’s first Crap Town, penned in by the sea on one side and isolated from the rest of the country by long miles of empty farmland on the other, the once thriving port seemed to be condemned to terminal decline.

But in what is arguably the biggest vote of confidence in the place since Edward I decided to build a fort here to service his battles with the Scots, Hull is today celebrating an extraordinary coup which, it is hoped, could propel the city and the surrounding area towards a new era of prosperity.

The decision by German manufacturing giant Siemens to create a new manufacturing base for offshore wind turbines on the site of an old dock could help bring up to 10,000 jobs locally and marks the turning of the tide on the Humber, it is claimed.

Hull defied the critics to secure the status of UK City of Culture 2017. Only last week it received the backing of the Government for an electric rail link cutting journey times to London as well as the northern powerhouses of Leeds Manchester and ultimately connecting with HS2. Meanwhile, its Premiership footballers only need to dispatch Sheffield United to secure a place in this year’s FA Cup Final. These are indeed optimistic times.

Politicians, environmentalists, unions and business leaders yesterday queued up to heap praise on the city which has been locked in four years of - at times - fraught negotiation with the German engineering giant as the Government appeared to waver in its support for green energy.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Michael Suess Chief Executive Officer of Siemens Energy, tour King George Dock in Hull (PA)

Flying in from The Hague where he has been holding talks with world leaders over the Western response to the Ukraine crisis, Prime Minister David Cameron toured the site of the old Alexandra Dock where once coal from the South Yorkshire pits was unloaded, describing the announcement as “a massive vote of confidence” in the future not just of Hull but of Britain.

Supporters of wind energy argue that events in Crimea demonstrate the pressing need for increased energy security with reliance on Russia for cheap gas no longer a viable policy. This, say the architects of the Energy Estuary plan, who include the High Steward of Hull Lord Mandelson, is where the Humber, with Hull at its heart comes in.

Fierce winds and shallow seas are leading to the creation of a low carbon “super cluster” which is already being compared to the Aberdeen oil and gas boom. The communities on the Yorkshire coast have long looked out to the North Sea for their prosperity either whaling, fishing or in merchant ships which plied their trade with their Low Country neighbours.

But the current investment and the scale of the future ambition dwarf anything that has gone before with up to £120 billion expected to pour into the region in the next decade.

Siemens selected Hull from 110 possible locations across mainland Europe. It will finance a new £160 million manufacturing plant at the dock and at nearby Paull where the giant 75m blades and the huge towers of the wind turbines will be built and assembled creating, an initial 1,000 jobs with thousands more in the supply chain.

The decision also gave the green light to a £150 million investment by Associated British Ports in Green Port Hull which will handle all cargo related to the project. Meanwhile, on the opposite bank, the Government has recently backed the building of £450 million green energy park – a move which has been compared in significance to arrival of Nissan at Sunderland.

The Centrica Energy Lincs offshore wind farm near Grimsby (Getty)

Driving the infrastructure investment are the enormous wind farms either under construction or currently in the planning phase due to be sited in the North Sea off Yorkshire.

By 2020 up to 4,000 turbines could be cranking out clean, green energy for millions of homes in Britain. Among them will be the world’s largest offshore wind park at Dogger Bank, big enough to generate up to 10 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs – a third of the Government’s target for renewables.

The knock-on effects will be felt around the region. Demand for steel would account for 25 per cent of the current production at the Scunthorpe steel works and provide a boost for high tech engineering in South Yorkshire and the Midlands whilst turning Humberside airport into a helicopter hub.

Success for the project is dependent on the continued reduction of the unit cost of offshore electricity which must come down by more than a third if it is to compete with the cost of fossil fuels.

But recent history has seen that huge plans can come crashing down just as quickly as expectations rise. Last year the industry suffered two serious setbacks with the decision by Scottish Power to abandon its £5 billion Argyll Array in the Inner Hebrides and RWE’s withdrawal from a £4 billion scheme off the Bristol Channel with the companies citing financial and technical reasons.

Last month Forewind, the consortium of energy companies behind Dogger Bank scaled back its plans by a quarter whilst a second phase of the London Array was also put on hold.

Maria McCaffery, chief executive of Renewable UK, which represents the industry, said the Siemens announcement was a “game changer” and offshore could create more than 30,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

“The rest of the world is eyeing us enviously, wanting a slice of the action. Now we know that a substantial part of that action will be undertaken by British workers in a major industrial renaissance on British shores,” she said.

Councillor Steven Bayes, who oversaw both the successful City of Culture bid and helped deliver the Siemens deal said the renaissance of Hull has been a carefully planned project changing perceptions and addressing problems. But success would ultimately be measured on raising the fortunes of the city’s disenfranchised youth and long term unemployed.

“I want a place where people feel proud about, where there are jobs for people providing skills and where aspiration is high. It saddens me that people don’t have that opportunity,” he said.