The Creative Industries and the Big Society

Julian Sefton-Green

It might be hard to believe now, but the advent of a government headed by David Cameron was something which many in the voluntary sector met with, at the very least, cautious optimism. After all, the concept at the heart of the vision of modern Conservatism was the Big Society: a political philosophy that gave voluntary, community and grass roots organisations a central role in how public services were delivered, citizens interacted and the vulnerable supported.

This was certainly the case with the creative industries where, along with businesses themselves, a range of community arts, educational and training organisations for the creative sector have grown up, in many cases out of the community arts movements of the 1970s. Under-financed and informally structured, many these organisations have a track record of record of working with young people from some of the most marginalised and hard-to-reach groups. Furthermore, they have been at the forefront of innovating in cultural education – in disciplines as diverse as jazz, multimedia production and contemporary dance.

The New Labour decade saw unprecedented levels of policy interest and funding for the creative voluntary sector, particularly in London and other large cities. However, the relationship with government and public investment bodies was often highly problematic. The funding provided by bodies such as the RDAs, LSC and European structural funds could be considerable, but so were the metrics, the targets and the constraints that were imposed alongside them. David Cameron did not mention culture or creative industries in his famous Big Society speech of 2009, but he certainly expressed sentiments that many in the sector would have understood and endorsed when he said that the civil service needed “people capable of engaging with social entrepreneurs and civic institutions who can agitate and encourage social action, and help people to build the type of sustainable organisations we need”.

Five years later, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the creative voluntary sector optimistic about the Coalition government’s approach towards them, and it is little wonder that the transcript of Cameron’s speech has since been quietly removed from the Conservative Party website. Whatever importance the Prime Minister still puts to his Big Society vision, it has been the austerity agenda with cuts to funding, and the shutting down of bodies such as the screen agencies and RDAs, which has dominated. In an attempt to better understand how the sector has fared in this new policy and funding landscape, I have been, along with BOP Consultancy, researching London’s creative voluntary organisations.

At an event last week hosted by WACArts in North London, panelists and audience members echoed many of our findings. As expected, economic development and regeneration funding for the sector in London has fallen sharply but, in addition, the proportion of funding from local government has halved with certain, Conservative-led boroughs, substantially reducing their funding for creative education. Furthermore, the notion that the voluntary sector could sustain itself through private sources and philanthropy, always fanciful, has proven to be as improbable as many feared. In fact, business donations to the arts are still lower than their peak before the financial crash.

Nor is it simply less money. With the ‘commissioning model’, pioneered in local authorities such as Westminster and Barnet but now widespread across national government, contracts for the delivery of government defined outputs are procured, and payment made, on the basis of delivery. As a result, training and employment support contracts are increasingly awarded not to small, sector-specific voluntary organisations, but corporations such as Serco with the organisational processes and financial resources to manage them.

The truth is that voluntary organisations require public funding. They have also benefited from recognition, research and, to a certain extent, the attention of policy makers. But the relationship has never been a happy one and government policy towards the creative voluntary sector has swung back and forth from under-investment to over-scrutiny. The result is that for many, hostility and suspicion of government has become a default position – funding is received grudgingly, grant administrators are regarded as the enemy, while within the funding bodies, such organisations are often seen as difficult and contractually non-compliant.

A new national government in 2015 is an opportunity to start the relationship with voluntary organisations afresh. After all, with youth unemployment at historically high levels and the creative industries growing rapidly but still failing to represent the diversity of the UK, it is clear that the problems that such organisations tackle are as resonant as ever. Voluntary organisations, whether in the creative industries or otherwise, are not the answer to all of society’s ills. But they do have a particular function to play, and the values they embody and connections they can make are important ones. The following approaches would help them to keep doing this even better:

  • Invest in disinterested rather than funder-led research, as evaluation assessments commissioned by the funders themselves are far too narrow, outputs-focused and of little wider value in understanding the social dynamics of the cultural voluntary sector.
  • The Arts Council needs to move beyond its unhelpful fixation with ‘excellence’ (i.e. supporting wealthy, world-famous institutions predominantly based in central London) and to boost those funding programmes (such as Grants for the Arts) which can do most to support informal cultural activities.
  • There is an urgent need to draw on local democratic accountability to represent ethnic minority and marginalised communities. But for the last fifty years, the only statutory cultural provision for local authorities has been library services. It is high time to update and broaden this, to include a range of creative education activities provided by voluntary organisations.


Julian Sefton-Green is an independent scholar working in the cultural and creative industries



One thought on “The Creative Industries and the Big Society

  1. Great article and superb recommendations. ACE’s focus on “excellence” (and its implications) always remind me of Viz’s The Critics and their description of Newcastle as a “tiny Lancashire mill town”.

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