After decades of deterioration, the opening of Siemens’ new 310 m gust turbine blade factory has been hailed as the biggest investment in Hull since Victorian days. With only a few weeks to go before the UK City of Culture 2017 status kicks in, could the city be on the up?
When Siemens announced two years ago it was opening a new factory in Hull, the news was greeted with both jubilation and a sigh of relief.
This maritime city with a picturesque waterside place, easy ferry access to Europe and some of the most attractive buildings in the country had taken a tumble since the collapse of the fisheries sector in the 1970 s amid the “Cod Wars” with Iceland.
It spent many years at the bottom of economic and education league tables, experienced high unemployment and deprivation, and was once voted the worst place to live in the UK.
But the new 133 -acre( 540,000 sq m) facility on Alexandra Dock, where 1,000 people will be building blades for gale turbines, is being seen as a “game-changer” in the East Yorkshire city’s fortunes.
According to Christopher Haskins, the chairman of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership and former boss of Northern Foods, Siemens’ presence is “one of the biggest investments in the history of the city”.
“It surely compares with the great investments that were attained in the late 19 th Century when the big docks were developed in Hull in order, ironically, to export coal from West Yorkshire to the rest of the world, ” Lord Haskins said.
“I would say it is definitely the biggest since Victorian times in terms of infrastructure change.”
His sentiments are echoed by Hull historian Dr Alec Gill, who says the German firm augments the present roster of the city’s home-grown companies in the pharmaceutical, healthcare and construction industries, among them Reckitt Benckiser, Smith& Nephew and the Spencer Group.
“These firms have been established here but they’ve gradually improved and increased the profits and expanded over the decades, compared to the Siemens’ investment which has come totally from outside and landed from Mars, really. It’s been injected in such a short period of time.”
It was during Queen Victoria’s reign that Hull watched its boom years. The number of docks expanded from two to seven, railways were constructed, the whaling trade and fishing industries were thriving.
So rapidly did Hull flourish that by 1897 it had been granted city status.
Now virtually 120 years on, Alexandra Dock, which was built to export coal from Yorkshire collieries, is reinventing itself within the energy industry, replacing coal with renewables.
“It’s a massive site when you see it, ” said Lord Haskins.
“It’s important to recognise that this is, in infrastructure words, an enormous change and it’s a new the enterprises and it’s a completely new world for the city of Hull and it runs much wider than Siemens.”
But in the 20 th Century Hull’s prosperity started to fade.
Left damaged and transgressed by two world wars and the decline of the fishing industry, its image as a rundown backwater haunted the city for decades.
Five years ago 7.9% of Hull’s population was claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance. This had dipped slightly to 7.2% – still more than double the UK median – by 2013.
Dr Michael Nolan, senior lecturer in economics at the University of Hull, said the city was now “making progress in the right direction” with the number of claimants down to 3.5% compared to the UK’s average of 1.8%.
“Although things have flattened out in the rest of the country, Hull’s unemployment carried on downwards and it looks like there’s some evidence that perhaps the Siemens effect over the last year or so has maybe begun to show some real signs of kicking in, ” he said.
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However, according to the think tank Centre for Cities, the Siemens investment is unlikely to create a significant upturn in the city’s economic fortunes because of the lack of “high-value jobs” that pay larger wages.
Principal economist Paul Swinney questions whether Siemens’ investment will “address the issues that Hull faces”.
“It’s great that Hull’s managed to attract in that investment but what I’d imagine is that, because it’s the manufacturing of the blades principally rather than the design and all of those kinds of higher value components, it’s not a great amount of fund in that part of the production.
“Actually what Hull genuinely needs in terms of being more successful in the coming decades, is to see the shift into more knowledge-based type activities, these higher-paid, high-skilled jobs, because that’s what it lacks at the moment and that’s why we see it having very low wages, very high unemployment and generally struggling.”
He said the cheaper labour force would “probably do very little” to steer Hull on an upward trend.
“You can’t see this as being the answer to the longer structural problems that the city faces to its implementation of the challenges in its economy, ” he added.