Hull wants to be one of the UK's top cities – and local contractors plan to team up to make sure they land some of the building contracts.
Up until a few weeks ago, local contractors in Hull were fighting each other tooth and nail for work. Not any more. As Hull becomes the latest city in the north to undergo a building boom, five firms in the area are in the process of forming an alliance in a bid to win a piece of the action.

Some £1bn worth of construction work is now on site or on the drawing-board, with multimillion-pound projects ranging from shopping centres to a casino set to transform the city over the next three years. As many of the projects are worth more than £10m and some as much as £40m, local firms are worried the boom will pass them by. "There are a large number of medium-sized contractors in Hull, but none big enough to take on projects of this scale," says a consortium representative.

Details of the alliance have still to be thrashed out, but for the five contractors involved – Wright (Hull), Quibell Group, Hall Construction, Sewell Construction and George Haulton & Sons – the move was born out of frustration. "Too many contracts have been awarded to large firms outside the area," says Wright (Hull) managing director Philip Wright.

Regenerating the city centre

A facelift for the city centre is one of the major planks of the building programme. The £50m public-private Ferensway redevelopment includes a new transport interchange, a food store, a hotel, retail and leisure facilities and city-centre housing. Then there is The Deep, Terry Farrell & Partners' landmark £37m aquarium, which is aimed to spur on the regeneration of the waterfront area, and a variety of housing improvements. But the largest scheme by far is the construction of a £646m new power station at Saltend for US firm Entergy Corporation.

Hull City Council's massive regeneration programme accounts for much of the construction work. The council has managed to grab £52m in four successful bids for Single Regeneration Budget funds, with more than four times that amount levered in through private sector contracts. It is now putting together proposals for a fifth SRB award. It has also received £20m of European development funding. Hull CityVision – a partnership between the public and private sector – is managing the bids and overseeing the regeneration.

The programme is driven by a need to attract tourists, business development and inward investment to the area. For this to happen, the city needed to change its image, and so in 1997, CityVision commissioned corporate identity consultant Wolff Olins to produce an image enhancement strategy.

"Hull's image is perceived by outsiders as either negative or non-existent," reported Wolff Olins. "It has a poor image and a fairly bland reality." The firm proposed that the city focus on the projects that most influence its image. It suggested removing eyesores most frequently encountered by locals and visitors to improve first impressions of the city.

Wolff Olins also recommended that Hull set itself an ambitious target: to become one of the UK's top 10 cities. The consultant believes it should work towards this by holding international design competitions for new flagship buildings. And, on prime sites, the council should ensure that the best architects in the country are involved.

But, as the regeneration plan gathers pace, local contractors predict skills shortages. The region's construction economy is worth about £450m a year, but the glut of new projects promises to increase this by as much as 30%.

"Early indications are that pro-rata with the existing construction economy, the impact of these projects on Hull is much higher than for other regions on the M62 corridor," says Guy Hazelhurst, a researcher in the faculty of the built environment at the University of the West of England, who is studying the region's construction economy.

Jobs for the locals

Keeping the labour force local is an emotive issue. Deputy prime minister and local MP John Prescott is backing the drive to use local labour on the £50m Preston Road Community Scheme in his constituency. His concerns stem from an earlier project, the North Hull Housing Action Trust, where workers were shipped into the area, depriving the community of work.

Contractors working on council-funded projects must liaise with the Hull Local Purchasing Initiative, an organisation funded by Humberside Training and Enterprise Council, to ensure that local people and suppliers are used. When the main contractor is appointed, a meeting is arranged with the initiative to help local subcontractors get a shot at the work. "We work with the city council. They tell us which contracts have been let and to whom," says initiative director Edmond Jenkinson. "If local labour is taken on, the contractor receives a wage subsidy of £30 for 26 weeks under European Social Funding." On the £200m Yorkshire Water Treatment Scheme, the initiative acted as a local labour recruitment agency.

Jenkinson admits that, with the amount of work in the pipeline, there will be a shortage of skilled labour. But he thinks the initiative has addressed the problem of semi-skilled labour by working with major contractors in the area to identify where shortages are likely to arise. It then attempts to meet the shortfall by training local people.