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Taking flight


  • Picture of Jonathan Sapsed
    Jonathan Sapsed
    Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Newcastle University Business School
  • Arts and culture
  • Economy

A new research hub explores how building corridors of creative industries could accelerate growth across a pan-northern ‘supercluster’.

This summer, in partnership with the RSA and with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Newcastle University became the lead for the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (Creative PEC). We are currently building a research hub that will soon house the largest concentration of economists and social scientists working on the creative industries anywhere in the country.

With teams in both Newcastle and London, the twin-hub model provides unparalleled opportunity to support the growth of the creative industries – growing jobs, skills, income and exports, health and happiness – in communities right across the UK. As RSA Chief Executive Andy Haldane has said: “The UK needs a creativity revolution, and the Creative PEC can be its centrepiece.”

So, how do we deliver this revolution? Currently, the creative industries in the North of England contribute less gross value added (GVA: the value generated by creative businesses over and above their inputs) than those in the South. They are disconnected from many market opportunities and perhaps have less access to decisions and investments. But there is enormous talent, outstanding universities and businesses, and many conditions which, in some respects, are more favourable than those in the South, such as working space and lower variable costs.

The North has a strong regional identity and a sense of belonging, a crucial ‘pride of place’ that can help fuel ambitious creative projects. The North’s iconography is derived from its cultural assets, such as the grand historical architecture of northern city centres and cultural venues, its pop culture – from The Beatles to Sam Fender – as well as contemporary art: think David Hockney’s iPad paintings of Yorkshire landscapes or Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. Furthermore, the policy infrastructure of the North, with established and impactful mayoral authorities that are currently expanding through devolution, can help accelerate action.

The North’s iconography is derived from its cultural assets, such as the grand historical architecture of northern city centres and cultural venues, its pop culture – from The Beatles to Sam Fender – as well as contemporary art.

Talent, technology and tolerance

Creatives are attracted to live and work in the North of England for its quality of life, which is enhanced by the combination of dynamic cities and easy access to outstanding natural beauty. This is a driver of creative clusters, as characterised by the economic geographer Richard Florida, who introduced the idea of a ‘creative class’ attracted to a place for its amenities and lifestyles, often in university towns, or with easy access to nature.

Once a critical mass is in place, these creative clusters emerge and begin to innovate and grow businesses and projects, displaying “talent, technology and tolerance”. The last of these indicates openness to diversity and ideas. There is a debate about to what extent creative clusters can be deliberately ‘set up’ and to what extent they must necessarily form organically. But there is little doubt that local authorities, agents and policies can create the conditions to attract creative people and organisations.

This is the starting point for the recent briefing paper, Northern England’s Creative Industries, published in partnership by the RSA and Creative PEC with support from several authors (Hasan Bakhshi, Heather Carey, Salvatore di Novo, Eliza Easton, Giorgio Fazio, Annie Gascoyne, Andy Haldane, Tom Kenyon, Josh Siepel and myself). There is a clear opportunity for the North of England to develop a cross-regional strategy to support the growth of the creative industries. Our new briefing paper sets out a path towards a North of England Creative Corridor, both as an exemplar and test model for such superclusters across the UK.

There is clear opportunity for the North of England to develop a cross-regional strategy to support the growth of the creative industries.

‘Rivals’ succeeding together

Creative PEC research shows that clusters of intense creative activity in the North are more geographically dispersed than those in the supercluster of London and the South-East. As such, the North would benefit from a coordinated plan that builds on existing strengths and maintains local specificities. Such a strategy would not be a zero-sum game: previous research by Nesta suggests that regional ‘rivals’ are more successful when they work together to grow their creative industries.

The opportunity is considerable. As a share of the local economy, the creative industries in the North currently contribute less than 3% to GVA. In London and the South-East, this sector share is closer to 10%. If the North were to grow its sector share even relatively modestly, the growth benefits would be considerable. For example, if the sector share rose to around half of the levels in London and the South-East, this would be equivalent to an annual GVA boost of around £10bn by 2030. If realised, this would make a significant contribution to the government’s sector vision target for the UK, which is to grow the creative industries by £50bn by 2030.

Moreover, this growth would benefit the whole of the UK, because a stronger northern creative economy is good for exports and investment, which, in turn, increases demand for content and services from creative businesses in the rest of the economy. To unlock this potential, there are several pre-conditions for growth to be considered, including critical areas of national policy (such as on immigration) and areas of policy set at both national and regional levels that have knock-on effects across the economy (such as transport or digital infrastructure).

The briefing paper provides an outline for how policy and industry leaders in the North could supercharge growth in the creative industries through a coordinated focus on skills, access to finance and investment in innovation. The ambition should be a coherent plan that will allow creative industries in the North to thrive over the coming decade and develop into a supercluster to complement the London and South-East creative supercluster.

The ‘corridor’ effect can be both coordinated and evolving through organic development. Clusters within a commutable distance start to see an exchange of employment and skills, especially because some creative sectors are volatile and depend on one-off, unpredictable investments. For example, a video games developer might win a contract for a Triple A branded project, and suddenly need a major influx of programmers, artists, animators and QA testers. The immediate cluster may not be able to supply all these jobs, but there will be eager talent available in a nearby cluster.

This has been the long-term behaviour in the video games clusters at various points along the M23 corridor. The city of Brighton and Hove was previously home to big studios such as Relentless and Black Rock, which, though now closed, generated new spin-off companies in the sector, often exploiting new platforms and markets. The same effects have occurred in Crawley with the likes of Bullfrog and Lionhead, originally set up by the visionary game designer Peter Molyneux.

The labour pool traverses the ‘corridor’ between the clusters, as the talent navigates the vagaries of a dynamic sector. This can also engender a degree of competition, as firms look to ‘poach’ the talent they need, so the corridors are highly dependent on networks that use them and personal associations.

The spillover effect

Over time, commuting leads to spillover effects as creatives move out of the clusters in surrounding towns and rural areas. The M23 corridor is sometimes known as ‘Greater Brighton’ as the cluster disperses along the corridor. The Coast-to-Capital Local Enterprise Partnership in this region saw its role as promoting innovation projects and strengthening connections, for example, to facilitate data analytics start-ups to scope use cases for datasets generated at Gatwick Airport. Large anchor organisations can also facilitate a corridor effect between clusters, as the BBC has done between its bases in Cardiff and Bristol, pulling in collaboration with universities in the Welsh and South-West region.

Given these examples, how can a Northern Corridor initiative join up the assets in a new and dynamic way? A question here is degrees of specialisation and whether regions wish to fight on all fronts or specialise? Realistically there will be competition, but there are also wins from coordination and targeting skills gaps across the North, such as the planned Crown Works Studios in Sunderland, slated to create 8,450 jobs and become one of the largest filmmaking complexes in Europe.

With wider problems with the ecosystem, including transport and lack of investors, it cannot only be the creative industries getting their house in order. A collective approach would be a stronger case for investment and better infrastructure.

Stakeholders including Arts Council England, the BBC and Channel 4 are all supporting this initiative. Their role will be to offer a degree of investment, to identify opportunities and make connections, but it’s up to northern creative industry stakeholders to realise the potential.

The key here is the devolution agenda with its incoming resources and blank slate, and the need for reducing regional inequalities through levelling up. Many mayors have already backed the notion of the Northern Creative Corridor – indeed Tracy Brabin, the mayor of West Yorkshire, has been a key architect of the vision. The scope and form the project may take is open to collaboration, while the opportunity is vast.

Jonathan Sapsed is Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Newcastle University Business School.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 4 2023

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