Whoever is in power in 2015, it is certain that they will regard a strong and vibrant cultural sector as important to economic development. The relationship takes many forms – regeneration and place making, through to boosting inward investment, retail and tourism, and onto the more complex and contested idea that a healthy cultural sector supports innovation and broader economic activity – in the commercial creative industries, but also more broadly across sectors.
If government wants the proceeds of growth to be widely available, then it must act to make the drivers of such growth accessible. As it stands, however, the UK’s cultural and creative industries only seem to be furthering inequality. This is particularly the case from a regional perspective, where there is a severe economic imbalance between London and the South East, and the rest of the country. With one or two exceptions, it is only in London where a globalised creative economy exists. If industries such as advertising, software, publishing and film really to play a role in the revitalisation of our national economy then they cannot be allowed to perpetuate regional inequality.
The challenge is all the greater given that in the last few years local cultural infrastructure has been so badly damaged. At the same time as local authorities’ budgets have been cut and regional agencies closed down, central government’s cultural spending has become more focused on London. This has accelerated longstanding trends within British economy and society, of the dominance of one part of the nation over the rest.
In many of the UK’s regions, the local creative industries have been underpinned by the public sector. This has not been in the form of direct state funding, but in the form of public sector employment, which has been crucial to sustaining the development of creative industries micro-businesses. Creative industries workers in these locations often have part time positions as teachers or librarians, work for government departments’ regional offices or have part-time academic work in higher education institutions. These activities provide incubation for creative careers that would otherwise be unsustainable in the short term. This crossover between local cultural organisations, the public sector and the creative economy is one area where policy can try to intervene and develop capacity.
Supporting the regional level creative industries is not just about funding for new arts centres or events to attract tourists. Rather it is about recognising that the working patterns and practices of creative professionals are related to opportunities in public sector employment, along with educational organisations and robust local networks to sustain individuals and micro-businesses. Regional cities such as Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham all have existing cultural infrastructures that are strong and can provide the basis for a renewal of their local creative economies. They all have relationships to their wider regions. But without the ecology of cultural organisations, public sector institutions and educational establishments, creative work in this region will depend on the willingness of individuals to accept precarious and often poorly paid work that will not lead to career or business development.
- The most obvious policy for any national government is the need to undertake a serious rebalancing of arts and cultural funding in the UK. A new National Investment Fund (as suggested by Powell, Gordon and Stark in their Rebalancing our Cultural Capital report) would shift Lottery funding from London to the rest of the UK.
- Secondly, regional development needs to take root in Whitehall in a way in which it never did during the era of the RDAs. This will require a forum for BIS, DCMS, ACE and DCLG to work together with specific hub local authorities, such as Birmingham or Newcastle, to develop regional policy to encourage state investment into the types of organisations that provide work in the creative economy. That the state is a major source of employment for creative industries should be recognised and encouraged.
- At the same time, local authorities can do more to support creative economy development. More localized procurement of creative services would be a start, along with rate or rent reductions for nascent creative businesses, and small amounts of state investment from the joint budgets of the departments and organisations leading on the regional agenda.
Dr Dave O’Brien, City University, London