In a cash-strapped climate, those working in the creative economy need to make their case for investment against competing demands. As pressure on public resources grows, this will require the creative economy to become increasingly sophisticated in the case it makes and in the role it plays in a wider strategy to help places become more resilient, able to survive, adapt and grow in the face of ongoing economic change.
The benefits of the creative economy – intrinsic, economic, social – are documented in a wide range of research. But that’s part of the problem; it’s such a wide range of research. Few agree on how to measure the benefits, or how it complements other sectors or initiatives, whether helping deprived communities, supporting innovation or delivering jobs. In an era where austerity requires much of the debate about investment to be conducted on a strictly instrumental basis, those working in the creative economy still have some way to go in articulating why it is so important to ensure they are part of the mix.
Part of this argument needs to be about the contribution the creative economy makes to places. Sir Peter Bazalgette highlighted recently that if local authorities cut their annual £1.58bn spend on culture, organisations like the Arts Council would not be able to fill the gap. So it’s vital to understand how places have used that money in the recent past, how austerity has changed that, and what that means for the future of the creative economy at the local level.
As I have argued elsewhere in Towards Plan A, during the plentiful years far too much money was spent on aspiration rather than making the most of existing assets. Too many ‘cut and paste’ strategies were modeled on success elsewhere without taking into account why it had worked in the first place. For example, Bilbao’s Guggenheim, one of Europe’s most high-profile cultural infrastructure projects, had first mover advantage and was part of a wider strategy to reinvent the city economy; it was not the museum alone that made the difference.
In the UK, recession and austerity have brutally exposed some of the thin foundations of public funding. Strikingly, however, in those places with a track record of sophisticated support and a broader strategic vision, investment has been maintained. Those are the places, such as Manchester and Bristol, which made the most of existing assets, which did not have unrealistic expectations about job generation, and where there was recognition that the creative economy has potential to generate intangible benefits, from higher levels of innovation to improved perceptions of a place as somewhere to live, work and invest.
This suggests that the arts and culture sector need to work with local authorities and other partners to be part of wider conversations about how to support economic growth and get the ‘basics’ right for business: not just transport, skills and housing but also quality of life. And, as part of this wider strategy, the creative economy needs to work with partners to develop smart, asset-based cultural regeneration approaches that are capable of creating durable foundations for economic and social growth. This is about making the most of what there is, being realistic about what it can achieve, and joining up with partners, both to source funding and improve outcomes.
It is going to be a challenging few years, but there is a real opportunity for actors within the creative economy to help lead conversations about how best to support regeneration and economic growth.
To encourage this, the forthcoming government should establish a ‘Creating Resilient Places’ Commission. Supported by the Arts Council, DCMS, and DCLG, this should look at what is required to build resilience in places with the arts and the creative industries positioned, not as a magic bullet or the totality of what needs to be done, but at the strategic centre of thinking about jobs, growth and better places.
Alexandra Jones, Chief Executive, Centre for Cities