Hull: Helping businesses go green

Cities with ambitious plans to regenerate and create new economic opportunities are coming together to share their ideas as part of a new Innovation Places Leadership Academy, convened by Connected Places Catapult. In the first of a three-part series about participating cities selected as ‘places of potential’, we focus on Hull and its academy representative Louise Smith.

If a city was ever the victim of its location, it would probably be Hull. “It is a phenomenal place and enjoyed tremendous wealth in the past, but it’s not ‘on the way’ to anywhere: you have to decide to come here,” explains Louise Smith, a director of the University of Hull’s net zero centre Aura. “For some people it’s at the end of the line, but we prefer to say it is at the start of the line.” 

The city has always looked to the sea for opportunity, and is doing so once more by developing prospects around offshore wind, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen.

“Hull helped to lead the last industrial revolution and we certainly think we can help to lead the next one.

As with many large urban conurbations, problems with poverty are never far away. But what is striking in Hull is how the Humber could be seen to divide the city in economic terms, even with a large road bridge linking the riverbanks. 

“There are difficult politics at play between the city of Hull to the north and the more prosperous East Riding,” she explains, “and the area is struggling to agree on a devolution deal which could unlock more funding from central Government. We still manage, but it’s very difficult.”

From oil to clean energy 

Louise started her career as a linguist, worked in corporate communications and joined a taskforce put together by the oil and gas industry to deal with disputes over the decommissioning of the North Sea oil terminal Brent Spar in the 1980s. 

“It was eye-opening to get an understanding of how international geopolitics works. That really launched the next 25 years of my career working on big projects with big issues.” She advised BP as an independent consultant and started to work on carbon capture technologies (with projects at Peterhead and Doncaster) and alternative energy systems including biofuels, offshore wind and carbon. “You could say that we were two decades too early,” she acknowledges wryly.

She then joined the University of Hull to work on an offshore wind project. “This was at a time when lots of people were deriding the technology as being far too expensive to be viable, but now it is really taking off and is the lynchpin of the UK renewable energy industry.” 

Louise joined Aura as a consultant to lead on stakeholder engagement around energy transition and creating relationships between businesses and the University, before being appointed as its director four years ago. “The role grew from focusing on offshore wind to the wider low carbon sector, and seeing how a pipeline of future talent can be created.” 

Parliamentary engagement 

One key focus for Hull city region now is to help companies to lower their carbon footprints, she says, with a recent Parliamentary event and roundtable dinner organised by the Hull-based global corporate Reckitt Benckiser helping to spread the sustainability message among local employers through the ‘OH Yes! Net Zero’ movement launched in March 2022. 

“We now have 150 companies signed up to help create a movement where we ask them to look at ways of lowering their carbon footprint, and get the larger firms to help their smaller counterparts,” says Louise. Another reason for the environmental focus, she explains, is its link to economic development. Larger companies are also being placed under increased pressure to lower their carbon footprints through tighter regulation. 

“That will have a knock-on effect on the supply chain, with smaller companies facing the threat of closure if green credentials cannot be demonstrated up the supply chain. So, we are hosting a business breakfast and creating ‘carbon clinics’ where big companies and smaller companies can work together to talk through the issues.” 

Louise is excited too about the growing number of technology focused companies springing up in the city. “It is a joy to work with small and medium sized companies in the area who are often self-funded, doing amazing stuff and pretty much carrying the whole region. 

“They are doing extraordinary things and often don’t see themselves as particularly innovative and forward thinking. If you pass their founders in the street, you wouldn’t think that they are an entrepreneur or work for an innovative company. 

“Our SMEs in the Humber are the backbone of our economy and the key to big change. Fostering collaboration is important and what we focus on in Aura, because at the end of the day this is all about helping people to get on; it’s about clean growth for the region’s economy so that everyone benefits.” 

Credit to the Academy 

Louise says she has thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Innovation Places Leadership Academy and sharing ideas with other city representatives. “One of the things that was nice when we met recently was that wherever we were from or whatever organisation we worked for, there was a level of openness and trust that allowed us all to be really frank about our issues,” she says. 

“Common themes I heard were the need to connect people and places, and the important of having a common framework to work to. Leaders often have a vision about tackling net zero, poverty or improving education, but ultimately this is all about unlocking economic potential. If we don’t work together, things are never going to change.”