Published on 28 July 2021
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Not just for city hipsters: the creative industries and the levelling up agenda

There is an important place for the creative sector in ‘levelling up’ and other local growth agendas. Eliza Easton discusses how crucial ‘place’ is to creative businesses and, in return, how important these organisations and their workforces can be to the neighbourhoods they are part of.

When you think of the creative industries in the UK – whether film, fashion, video games or the arts – you probably think about London with its vibrant advertising, broadcasting and design sectors. More specifically your mind might drift to hipsters in Shoreditch. And there is a good reason for this stereotype – one third of people working in the UK’s creative industries are based in London. Even outside of the Capital  there is a wealth of evidence to show the benefits to creative businesses existing in large clusters. 

At Nesta we’ve shown the benefits to businesses that are found working in substantial clusters in cities like London and Manchester, as well as in fast growing clusters like Birmingham, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and places like Cambridge and Guildford that specialise in a more specific creative sub-sectors (e.g. tech and design).

Looking at this list of locations, it might be easy to question if the creative industries have much to add to the UK Government’s as yet undefined ‘levelling up agenda’. 

However, to exclude the sector from this agenda would be a mistake. Not only does the sector’s size and employment statistics make it unignorable (one in eight UK businesses are part of the creative industries and together contributed almost £116 billion in GVA in 2019) but recent research from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) has shown that there are in fact micro-clusters of creative businesses (50+ creative businesses in close proximity) located around the UK, from the Shetland Islands to Cornwall.

Whilst previous datasets have hidden these smaller business groups, we used innovative methods of data gathering  like web scraping to show that the sector is not confined to the big cities. And though these clusters may, on the surface, look and feel different to bigger communities, co-locating in this way appears to have a number of consistent advantages for creative organisations. These include shared access to creative talent, clients, collaborators and researchers.

It seems obvious that as the UK Government builds on the £3.6bn investment of the ‘Towns Fund’ they should work to help local areas to develop these clusters.

Creative clusters

One thing that differentiates this Government’s place-based agenda from some previous iterations is that its success is going to be very broadly defined. Whilst there are clear challenges associated with this, there are also reasons why this means partnership with the creative sector is vital. Nowhere is this more obvious than when thinking about the place of arts and culture in the local agenda.  

Author of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto Rachel Wolf spoke about the ‘high street test’ which is, in part, about whether your local area feels “depressing to be in”. What part of our policy landscape offers more joy than the creative industries, whether through local cinemas, arts or heritage? Just think about the transformation that cultural investment brought to Margate, and the long-term impact of Hull UK City of Culture but in fact every place has its own assets which encourage civic pride and community such as the local National Trust Property, museum, theatre or cinema. They are not only levers that form part of the social infrastructure, can encourage tourism and investment, but are key to helping us to be happy wherever we are.

Cultural initiatives and investments like those in Hull or Margate aren’t without controversy but culture is clearly a powerful tool in changing how we feel about the place we live in and is one that policymakers cannot ignore. It’s also an area where quantitative evidence of impact is improving.  In our recent policy briefing on levelling up we pointed out how timely the HM Treasury’s review of its Green Book guidance on public investment has been, as it specifically highlights how a more strategic understanding of the benefits of public investment is key to the levelling up agenda.

So, if the Government did want the creative industries to be more ‘baked into’ the levelling up agenda, what could they do? The UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund is primarily focussed on capital investment, but with the Levelling Up White Paper set for publication this Autumn and the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund yet to be finalised, there are still significant opportunities to ensure the needs of the creative sector, including in skills and business support, are fully recognised in its local growth agenda. Someone once told me that creative businesses are ‘mostly brains in a room’  (creative businesses often don’t have their own building) and whilst there are exceptions to this, many are calling for an investment in skills and innovation, rather than capital investment.

Equally, there are specific emerging mechanisms that need to be explored in the context of the creative industries. For example, there are some promising early results from the analysis of the impact of changing local procurement practices in Preston on the creative sector – imagine a local council commissioning a local design firm rather than one from the capital. While interventions like this cannot be identically lifted from one area to another (and might even become less effective if they were used by all local authorities), policymakers at both the national and regional levels should look to share similar potential mechanisms for each place to find their own unique recipe to success.  

More broadly, the evidence shows that we need to challenge the ‘metropolitan elite’ stereotype which has dogged the creative industries and recognise communities of dynamic businesses working UK-wide which would benefit from the Government’s support.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Eliza Easton

Affiliated Researcher

Eliza Easton is a creative industries expert, who has spent the last five years as Head of Policy and then Deputy Director of the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (Creative PEC)...

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