If west met east in the north, the thinking is, everyone up there could do much better. And especially Hull, says Nick Hasell.
For five months 1967 all mail despatched from Hull bore a postmark in bold sans-serif type, the slogan proudly claiming "Hull - Gateway to Europe". This was in an age of municipal marketing when seemingly every town was calling itself a "gateway" to somewhere. Hull could lay greater claim than most to such a role, having for centuries acted as a staging-post for trade from the industrial north to the Low Countries and Baltic ports. To its stolid citizens - and no doubt to the mail-receiving public alike - the boast appeared faintly risible.
Twenty-four years on and Hull has rediscovered the art of self-promotion. The slogan may have changed slightly ("Gateway to Europe" has now given way to "Northern Gateway") but the message is still the same. This time around, Hull has a sounder basis for its claims; not only has Europe's centre of gravity shifted conveniently eastwards, but the port itself is enjoying something of a boom. Last year the Port of Hull, a holding of Associated British Ports (ABP), recorded a throughput in cargo of 6.9 million tonnes, an increase of 30% on the previous year. This year traffic has increased by a further 10%.
Port manager Mike Fell is in no doubt as to the reasons behind the current volume of trade. His explanation comes in the form of three emphatic points, delivered as if reciting the most elementary mantra of commercial success: "One, privatisation in 1983; two, the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme in 1989; and three, our position facing Europe." Having himself worked at Hull during the dark days of the '70s, it is further clear to which of these he gave the most weight. "Under the Scheme there was no working in the rain, long breaks and very limited hours of work. Now we can actually work cargo 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in any weather conditions," he explains. ABP have embarked on major investment. In July this year the 190-acre Alexandra Dock re-opened after eight years of disuse - a rare instance of a British dock being revitalised to return to its original purpose. Parliamentary approval has also been secured for a £30-million scheme to build three roll-on-roll-off berths on the river Humber, so opening the port to wider vessels.
Amidst the talk of future prosperity mention is inevitably made of the Channel Tunnel - to Fell this comes as something of an irrelevance: "When you look at its capability, which is only able to carry six million tonnes per annum through a hole in the ground, it is just like another east coast port. Around the coastline of the UK there are something like 400 ports of meaningful size, so it becomes just another competitor."
Despite Fell's bullishness, the joint prospect of the Tunnel and the South's proximity to the single market has undoubtedly been the spur behind several recent transport initiatives from the public and private sector. Fear of being economically marginalised has focused attention not merely on Hull but also on the M62 motorway corridor as a whole. A number of lobbying groups have emerged. Their proposals differ, but all aim to unite the north of England through an east-west trade route.
David Fletcher, executive director of one such group, Transpennine, points out that the industrial shakeout in the north during the '80s had a fragmenting effect. On the premise that "the two sides of the Pennines have got more in common than not", Transpennine is now campaigning for a host of infrastructural improvements that will ease communication between the Mersey and the Humber.
Another project, "Green Links to Europe", is more specifically concerned with encouraging freight off the road and on to an upgraded rail system, in the process forming a freight corridor that would link Ireland and northern England via the Humber ports to Northern Europe. As the name suggests the motivation is primarily environmental and reflects frustration at the M62's increasing congestion. The first step in creating this "landbridge" would include the electrification of the existing trans-Pennine line, to be followed by a new train ferry service from Humberside to Emden in Germany. Though the political climate is currently in favour of the inter-modal shift to rail, funding must first be found for a detailed feasibility study.
Whatever the success of these various projects, they collectively testify to a new climate of latitudinal thinking in which Hull figures as a lynchpin. In the process delegations from the city have consolidated links with other ports, from Dublin and Liverpool in the west to as far afield as Rostock, Szczecin and Gdynia. If Hull is indeed to become the "Gateway to Europe" it is ultimately through such efforts that its claim will be staked.