Hull's windfall goes to rugby lovers who need double-glazing

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The Independent Online
FOR THOSE people in Hull who own their homes and detest rugby league, it has not been the best of weeks. They claim their relative wealth and non-adherence to the local sporting religion have deprived them of the benefits of a cash windfall which has made their city, temporarily at least, one of the wealthiest in Britain.

Financially, Hull's boat has not come in quite like this since its prolific fishing grounds were discovered south of the Dogger Bank 150 years ago. Four months ago, Kingston upon Hull Council, the last in Britain to own its local telephone network, floated it on the Stock Exchange. Shares in the company, Kingston Communications, were snapped up, many at a discounted rate by 60,000 local telephone users, and Hull reaped pounds 220m. The value of its 44 per cent shareholding stands at pounds 902m.

From council chambers to dockside markets, how to spend "KC"- as the pounds 220m is now known - dominates discussion. Inevitably, in rabid rugby league territory, the city is to blow a large portion of its new-found wealth on a pounds 35m "super stadium" to replace the worn-out grounds which house Hull's rugby league and football clubs. Another pounds 10m will go on double glazing and central heating for 25,000 council houses.

Some complain of exclusion on both counts. "Not being a council-house tenant or a rugby league fan, what does [the council] mean when it says the sell-off money from KC will benefit everybody?" asked just one of a slew of letters to theHull Daily Mail on Thursday. "What's in it for me, an ordinary, working, mortgage payer?"

The same discontent was evident at the 1904 market hall."I'm not at all into rugby and I feel excluded. It should all go on regeneration," said Cheryl Davies at the pasta stall. But Dave Pinder, a guide at Hull's Maritime Museum and a KC shareholder, could not resist a faintly smug smile. "I like rugby league and if pounds 35m is going to be put that way, then all well and good."

Like everyone else, 19-year-old Gillian Musgrave, one of the "navigators" the city employs to direct pedestrians, has a firm opinion: plans to merge the rugby team with Gateshead, 120 miles up the coast, disturb her and the new stadium will cement the sport's future here, she says.

The council is wasting no time. Although it is yet to receive confirmation from John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and local MP that it can actually spend the KC receipts, plans for the stadium have already been approved.

This has fanned the flames of another, surprisingly contentious, proposal to spend pounds 10m of KC money on double glazing for council tenants. The plan sounds reasonable enough but it has become buried under claims of political manipulation and even gerrymandering.

The money is earmarked for 20,000 Fifties brick terraced houses but four out of seven estates which will get them first are in Liberal Democrat wards. This fact has been used by the opposition Liberal Democrats as evidence that KC money is being used to buy votes.

Labour's veteran council chairman, Tony Doyle, unwittingly fuelled the fire when he appeared to hint at the political benefits of spending KC money, in a party discussion paper leaked to the opposition last week. His paper examined the "news management exercise" and pondered whether the Labour group should "drip-feed the good news and release information phase by phase" or go for "one big announcement".

Simone Butterworth, a Liberal Democrat councillor whose Boothferry ward will be one of the first to get the new panes, says pounds 5m of work on 450 properties is being rushed through before May's local elections. Mr Doyle counters that the Liberal Democrats have been using poisonous leafleting tactics. "They have been writing about Two-Jags John [Prescott] and making much of wage increases for council leaders," he said.

Hull's impoverished areas could certainly use the money. One in 10 of its council properties lies empty and the authority is spending pounds 900,000 a year just to keep them boarded up. Unemployment locally is 9.2 per cent.

For the disgruntled who do not find the spending plans to their taste, there was at least the consolation of a soaring share price this week. Those who bought shares in the company saw their 225p investment leap to 573p on Thursday, an increase of 48p on Wednesday's closing price and an all-time high.

Banks report that many city residents are now cashing in shares and some businesses even anticipate a Christmas spending boom. "The minimum investment in shares was pounds 225 at the float and a lot of the poorer people couldn't afford that," said Dave Pinder, at the Maritime Museum. "That is why I can't begrudge them their new double glazing."