Britain and Europe

Creativity and culture can be the glue that holds Brexit Britain together

17 February 2017

Higher levels of creative output can help build regional identity and encourage more local autonomy in public services in a virtuous circle of civic pride

Jonathan Todd

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was replaced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy when Theresa May succeeded David Cameron as prime minister. This brought industrial strategy firmly into vogue. Only recently, however, has a clearer sense emerged of what this means: in part, an increased confidence in the creative industries.

The creative industries were identified as one of five key sectors in the government’s industrial strategy consultation. Brexit means Brexit and industrial strategy means the creative industries – even if the free movement of ideas and people that sustains the creative industries is threatened by Brexit.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport grew out of the Department of National Heritage and for many years, under both departmental titles, its political masters were referred to as ministers for fun. With its origins in heritage, and its associations with fun, it is a heavy burden for the creative industries to have such economic responsibility thrust upon it. Notwithstanding this, there are other transformative functions that we might look towards these industries to perform in post-Brexit Britain.

These occurred to me, oddly enough, when reading a King’s Fund paper on health and social care. Cornwall and Greater Manchester are moving towards much more devolved arrangements than other parts of England.

“Residents of both Cornwall and Greater Manchester”, the paper notes, “possess strong regional identities and sense of place, and each region has its own history of campaigning for greater autonomy.”

There are, of course, vital debates to be had about the kind of healthcare that we want. Without presupposing these debates, there are reasons to believe that greater autonomy will improve health outcomes. The King’s Fund paper concurs:

“We believe the current energy associated with wider devolution has the potential to act as a game-changer in health and social care, bringing about genuine integration and a more effective focus on improving population health.”

It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that health and social care devolution has gone furthest in areas with relatively strong identities and senses of themselves. These attributes encourage both a willingness to seek greater responsibilities from Whitehall and a sense of mission, grounded in regional pride, around service delivery.

The creative industries nourish pride. Manchester’s swagger preceded the Madchester era but cultural entrepreneurs like Tony Wilson assisted the civic confidence that devolution pioneers like Howard Bernstein trade upon.

The intangible of civic confidence supports the more tangible outcome of improved public service outcomes – if we believe that regions possessed of this intangible are more willing to seize responsibilities for their services and that more autonomous, locally-driven public services produce better outcomes.

It is concerning, therefore, that Nesta last year analysed the geography of the creative industries in the UK and found that, “London is dominant in most sub-sectors and on almost all of the indicators we have considered”. This report recommended support for the development of clusters outside of London.

The government’s industrial strategy goes some way to taking this up. “The Cabinet Office”, the strategy revealed, “is reviewing the location of government agencies and cultural institutions and will consider relocating them where they could help reinforce local clusters and support private sector growth.”

Similarly, some parts of the UK are benefitting from the BBC moving more functions out of London. As part of the BBC’s commitment to Wales, for example, a new headquarters for BBC Wales is the centrepiece of a regeneration of Cardiff city centre – which economic research that I led estimates will generate an additional £1.1bn of gross value added for Cardiff over the next decade. This follows BBC investment in high-end drama production at Roath Lock, contributing to investment decisions by a number of studios in south Wales over recent years – Chepstow, Dragon, Pinewood and Swansea Bay.

With political devolution, a burgeoning creative sector, and a renewed sense of itself, Wales has developed enhanced public policy élan – pushing back, for instance, against the right to buy. Many of the ingredients of this cocktail are, though, absent in the English regions, for instance centralised political structures and hierarchical public services. There is also a fear that our best days are behind us.

While that leaves the English regions with a lot to turn around, not least in the face of Brexit’s looming uncertainty, the election of metro mayors in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands in May offers an opportunity to begin to address these challenges – especially if combined with moving cultural institutions to the regions.

These elections are stepping stones to the UK moving closer to the Swedish and Finnish public sectors, where more public money is raised and spent locally. These countries, according to Nesta research, also boast larger proportions of their workforce in the creative industries – 8.9 per cent in Sweden and 8.2 per cent in Finland, versus 7.6 per cent in the UK. If the UK could raise creative industry employment to Swedish levels, this would amount to around 400,000 additional jobs.

These jobs, and the creative output associated with them, would build regional confidence and identity, which, as Cornwall and Manchester have demonstrated, encourages more local autonomy in public services – a virtuous circle of civic pride and public policy capability within the English regions. This is a silver lining worth grasping amid Brexit’s disconcerting clouds.

Image credit: Bikeworldtravel / Shutterstock.com