Study visit to Derby

Study visit to Derby, July 2019

Emily Hopkins, Royal Holloway University of London

A visit to Derby showcased a city which has been defined by its manufacturing industries but which has a growing number of creative businesses which have the potential to be a socioeconomic bridge,  generating income in a larger variety of sectors whilst transforming the city’s cultural identity.


Over the course of the visit, the group was asked to consider: how can Derby use its reputation as the home of Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Bombardier, in developing its vision as a culture-led creative city?

The day began with Nicola Lynch from the University of Derby discussing the steady increase of the city’s economic growth rate, measured as the third fastest growing economy within the UK in 2018. However, Nicola noted that where Derby is achieving great success, notably in various engineering sub-sectors, there is an uneven spread of wealth and the city has a large wage differential.

Throughout the visit, Derby’s ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ industries were repeatedly referred to as the city’s leading contributors to the local economy. These undoubtedly play a crucial role, with a combined economic output of £9.5bn generated from its three leading employers: Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Bombardier. However, more than 80% of new local businesses are micro-firms, many of which are part of the city’s growing creative industries.

IdentityTripods 2

The ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ anecdote set a benchmark of local identity that was difficult to compete with. The visit highlighted a need to look beyond the restrictions that could result from a definitive economic narrative, and to recognise the socioeconomic value of Derby’s cultural outputs. Mike Brown from Derby City Council discussed the need for cultural strategies to recognise Derby’s status as a transportation manufacturing hub, but also evolve the identity of the city as its outputs diversify.

The cultural community uses its collective assets and energies to celebrate its status as a smaller city, with a visit to Derby Theatre and its Departure Lounge Festival showcasing the strong connections between the local institutions and practitioners. Sarah Brigham, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the theatre, spoke alongside local producers about their active choice to locate in Derby, rather than move to more renowned creative cities nearby, such as Manchester or Birmingham. Why? To help ‘put Derby on the map’ and promote the city’s cultural outputs.

The example of the #ThisIsDerby programme also embraced this civic pride, bringing together local sports, arts and cultural talent for young people in the city. Importantly, it addressed the city’s socioeconomic imbalance by locating activity hubs in nine of Derby’s most deprived wards. It also utilised a mixture of stakeholders to co-produce the activities and demonstrated the power of combining forces with unexpected partners, such as Derby County FC. #ThisIsDerby illustrated the possibilities that arise from local collaborations and the positive changes that these can bring for both the residents of Derby and the local economy, as a predicted £2.5m was brought into the city through the event.


The city is located within the D2N2 (Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire) Local Enterprise Partnership, which is the fifth largest LEP in the UK. A roundtable discussion with local stakeholders and creative industry workers noted the difficulties of being located within proximity to Nottingham, home to a successful cultural quarter with offices and an established support network for small creative enterprises. In comparison, Connect Derby provides several co-workspaces, supported by Derby City Council and the European Regional Development Fund. A visit to one of the seven hubs highlighted how creative and engineering enterprises are based in separate buildings around the city. Again, we see possibilities for collaboration: combining the workspaces of the creative and STEM enterprises could help to connect Derby’s dual identities as a manufacturing and culture-led creative city, and lead to innovative partnerships.

Derby film studioNonetheless, there seemed to be a mutual agreement that the size and scale of Derby was a crucial factor in the strength of the existing connections between its local creative industries. “We go to the same pubs and drink in the same cafes”, it was noted, and the major cultural institutions in the city centre are all within a walking distance of each other – this provides a real advantage for smaller creative cities.



Our visit to Derby showed us the collaborative potential that was being nurtured by a strong cultural community who are eager to play a role in the changing face of the city; but it also illustrated the difficulties of competing with a dominant economic narrative without a forum or platform to connect these ideas. Taking this into consideration, here are some suggestions to overcome these obstacles:

  • Formalised interactions between Derby’s creative networks – There is a need to formalise the informal networks that already take place. This would put less pressure on individual institutions to facilitate their own networks and provide a more official framework for the cultural and creative industries to work with in the city.
  • Pursue opportunities provided by the larger companies that currently define the local economy – The manufacturing industries could help to form a more interconnected supply chain throughout the city, utilising the outputs of the local creative talent and playing a larger role in the wider cultural ecosystem of Derby. How can these distinct stakeholders and their assets be used in the shaping of the city’s future identity?
  • A new narrative – Reaffirming definitive identities of place makes it more difficult for new narratives to emerge. While the ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ anecdote summarises an intrinsic part of Derby’s economic identity, there is a need to move beyond this and allow culture-led identities to share the stage.

Stoke study-visit

Manufacturing is a key component of Staffordshire’s economy, employing almost 58,000 people. This accounts for just over 13% of the region’s workforce and is higher than the UK average. Stoke-on-Trent has a well-known and established history as the United Kingdom’s centre of ceramics. Ceramic materials expertise in the region is significantly higher than that of anywhere else in the UK, with almost 8,000 people employed in the sector (4% of the Stoke-on-Trent workforce). Ceramics manufacturing contributed around £285 million of GVA to Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire’s economy in 2014.

Established in 2011, the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership has a vision to create 50,000 jobs and increase the size of the region’s economy by 50% by 2021 over a 10-year period.

Stoke starts from a low-base. As this scatter chart from the Centre for Cities shows, Stoke is among the worst-scoring cities in the UK for both GVA per worker and number of knowledge-intensive businesses (see Centre for Cities data-tool):



Nonetheless, over the past 7 years Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire have seen strong growth to their economy with an increase of 18% (GVA growth), alongside a growth in employment by 12%. Since 2011 the region has also seen a 40% increase in new business creation.

In the LEP’s 2016 annual report, Business and Professional Services, including the Digital and Creative sector, were recognised as being a key area for growth. In the LEP’s 2018 annual report Digital Technologies was listed independently of the Business and Professional Services as being a key sector of importance in the region. The sector is recognised as being of increasing importance to all sectors, and the LEP noted growth in the local area, particularly around key employment sites including Stoke Business Park, Stafford Technology Park and Dunston Business Village. As well as creating increased employment opportunities, continued growth in this sector will support local companies’ implementation of digital technologies.


The focus of the study-visit was the potential of the digital screen sectors as the drivers for economic development and growth. Working with Platform – the network agency for the Moving Image cluster in the area – a day of visits, presentations and discussions was devised, placing a strong emphasis on film, media and technology-and-research driven business. This included a tour of Staffordshire University’s brilliant e-sports and motion-capture studios, as well as visits to and discussions with a range of creative and digital businesses.


A fuller report of the Study-Visit has been prepared for the Creative Industries Council; by way of summary, a number of areas of ‘learning’ can be highlighted here. As well as being relevant to our study-visit to Stoke, these insights should be applied to the Smaller Cities project more broadly.

  • Universities are central to a local skills, business and innovation strategy – but as HE funding comes under pressure, competition between universities, and between universities and FE institutions, is likely to intensify, meaning that it will become ever more important to foster collaboration and complementarity between them
  • A range of impressive initiatives is not the same as a coherent strategy or programme
  • A sense of pride and identity in a city risks leading to a cosy familiarity rather than a genuine commitment to overcoming challenges to growth and development; optimism and confidence can easily tip over into complacency
  • Cities need to look beyond their borders – understanding supply chains and regional connectivity; city-to-city trade requires a coherent ‘export policy’, especially if smaller cities are to establish distinctive specialisms as part of a cluster strategy
  • Looking forward can reflect ambition – but not acknowledging the past (and the present) might result in an unconvincing narrative about the future.

Centre for Cities on ‘Cities and Towns’

Cities and Towns

Paul Swinney, Rebecca McDonald and Lahari Ramuni – originally published at the Centre for Cities

Since the Brexit vote, there has been a great deal of policy debate and focus on ‘left-behind’ towns, and whether consecutive governments have focused too much on cities at the expense of smaller places.

But what is overlooked in these debates is the economic relationship between cities and towns, and how this should inform policy.

A new report explores the ways that the economies of cities, towns and villages interact. It shows that the impact of cities goes well beyond their boundaries – and that they shape the economies of the places around them – in two key ways:

1. Cities are home to the majority of the economy – bringing benefits to other places

Cities account for just 9 per cent of land in Britain, but are home to 55 per cent of businesses and 60 per cent of jobs. This has a number of implications for people who don’t live in a city:

  • Cities raised 63 per cent of all growth-related taxes in 2013/14, which was then used to provide public services across the country.
  • Cities provided jobs for more than 1 in 5 working residents living outside cities in 2011.
  • Due to their larger markets, cities are able to support specialisms in health, education, arts and entertainment activities that people living in nearby towns and rural areas are able to benefit from.
2. The economies of cities and towns are intrinsically linked

The report shows that when a city prospers, nearby towns are also more likely to be successful:

  • Towns close to highly productive cities perform better in terms of attracting high-skilled business investment, jobs and firms. And they also have lower unemployment rates.
  • In contrast, towns close to less successful cities have higher unemployment rates, and have also struggled to attract high-paying firms and jobs.

The report argues that these factors should be important considerations for policy debates on industrial strategy, inclusive growth and productivity. It makes the following policy recommendations:

  • Focus on improving skills in all places across the country
  • Recognise the role that cities play in their wider local economies
    and the national economy
  • Proceed with further devolution to tailor policy responses to different
Talk of the Town can be downloaded here.


Local History

Local History – place-making for the future

Tom Campbell, KTN


Despite claims made over the last 20 years about the death of distance, the rise of teleworking and the coming of the virtual corporation, geography remains embedded in economic development. Indeed, the lexicon of economic geography has arguably never been so prevalent: when it comes to the British government’s industrial strategy, few speeches or papers don’t reference place-making, business clusters, industrial gateways, geographical hubs or economic corridors. But the emphasis on geography often comes at the expense of its fellow humanities discipline, history. In particular, it is local history, a subject all too overlooked by academia, that is key to understanding not just a city’s economic characteristics, but also informing its future strategy.

Economic and cultural history

A city and its local industrial footprint or impact are not simply the result of geographic circumstance or transport connectivity but more usually reflect an extensive and complex history. The workforce, firms, owners and investors have shaped the city’s character and built environment and, in turn, been shaped by it.

Such histories can stretch back a long way: Coventry’s automobile industry is still a significant employer 120 years after the first car in Britain was made there, ceramics has dominated Stoke-on-Trent for more than three centuries , while a reference to Sheffield’s manufacturing of cutlery can be found in the works of Chaucer.

The importance of local history is especially relevant to the creative industries. As a sector recognised by national government, it is little more than twenty years old and invariably associated with discussions around the ‘new’, post-industrial economy. But this shouldn’t blind us to the rich local histories and cultural ties which bind the creative economy to cities and localities. Four hundred years ago, Oxford was one of Europe’s centres for the printing of prayer books and scholarly works, and educational publishing remains a major industry there to this day. The visual arts scene in St Ives dates back to the founding of an artist colony in the nineteenth century, while the Bristol Old Vic built in the 1760s is responsible for nurturing contemporary talents such as Olivia Coleman and Jeremy Irons.

The newer industries display a similar continuity – the film industry has been synonymous with Soho since its beginning, while video games production has been rooted in the West Midlands for more than thirty years. As these industries have grown, so public institutions have grown with them – Oxford Brookes University is a renowned centre for teaching and research in publishing, just as the University of Coventry’s courses in automotive design attract students from around the world.

Future industries

For city leaders, there is an understandable tendency to look to ‘industries of the future’. The language of economic geography, fused with technological jargon, is seductive and cities and regions across Europe and the US have striven to become innovation corridors, test-bed cities, technology hubs and advanced industry clusters. This is especially tempting for smaller cities and towns always seeking the big ‘foreign investment win’ and to pin their hopes on an emerging technology that can secure a prosperous future.

But foregoing a town’s industrial heritage could be a mistake. While very large cities might be able to accommodate this kind of churn and creative destruction, the relentless pursuit of the new risks not only ripping apart the cultural fabric and identity of a town, but also its economic assets. A particular industry’s workforce, skills, culture, infrastructure, public institutions and specialist suppliers are not things that can simply be repurposed. These dense ecologies will often have grown up over many decades, and become embedded in a way that transcends their physical presence or spatial relation. Nor should the value and durability of external perceptions be ignored – three hundred years after Josiah Wedgwood, pottery made in Stoke still means something, as does a suit from a Savile Row tailor, 150 years after Henry Poole opened his premises there.

Looking back to look forward

Geography matters and the study of economic geography, will always inform city planning and economic strategy. But so too does history. When it comes to economic strategy, planners will always want to survey the cityscape, chart connections and produce heatmaps of activity. But they should also spend some time at their local library or archive and devote some time to thinking about not just what they want their city to be in the future, but how it got to be what it is today.


Revisiting Coventry

John Newbigin

In a note sent to me just after our visit to Coventry, Jonothan Neelands said

“Culture is neither a tool for regeneration nor gentrification and instead a way of connecting and strengthening communities. It’s not just about economic impact in terms of tourism, growth and employment; it’s also about the economic value of stronger communities, inclusive participation and growth, health and wellbeing.”

The oath of citizenship in Periclean Athens (550BC) required citizens to promise to “leave the city richer and more beautiful than I found it”.

The Greek reference came to my mind because of Jonothan’s allusion to Coventry’s ‘City of Culture 2021’ initiative being a kind of Trojan horse – smuggling arts and culture into civic life in a way that catches people unawares.  If a city council announced “we’re going to have a year of the Arts” most people would assume it was nothing to do with them.  If the city said “we’re going to do a major rebranding exercise” they would be attacked for a profligate and pointless use of public money.  But the City of Culture project has somehow managed to sneak its way past all that because it starts with place and people’s desire to be proud of their home town and feel it to be a place worth living in.


Sarah Windrum explained how, in their LEP discussions, they’d chosen to treat ‘digital creative’ as a ‘state of mind’ rather than a precise definition of a bit of the economy.  That seems eminently sensible – after all, the ‘creative industries’ is itself a hopelessly woolly way of identifying a sector of the economy.  In fact, it’s not really a definition at all – it’s a branding exercise to give political profile to an eclectic jumble of trades and professions that the banks don’t take seriously.   It’s a short-hand description.  One of the things I like about Coventry’s approach (if I’ve got it right) is that it starts not with definitions about culture and creativity but simple descriptions – What do people do?  What are their circumstances? How can culture make things better?

So, a good starting point to thinking about culture and its relationship to economic or social wellbeing might be ‘go for description – who’s there?, what’s there?, what do they do?, what would they like to do more of?, what would they like to be good at?’

Mike Whitby used the phrase “our great provincial cities” three times in his brief talk.  What was he describing?  One of the things that made those provincial cities of the Victorian era ‘great’ was that they each had a clear area of expertise that made them distinctive  – Sheffield was steel, Sunderland was shipbuilding, Derby was rail engineering, Nottingham was lace, Hull was fish, Manchester was cotton mills … etc.  And the important thing about those defining characteristics was that they meant something to everyone – the owners of the yards and mills as well as the people who worked in them, or even those who just experienced the noise and the pollution they generated.  At school, kids were taught which city did what.   Those activities defined the place and people.

What’s to distinguish one city from another now when they’ve all got the same dreary chainstores and franchise restaurants in their High Street, the same out-of-town superstores on their fringes and the same tacky clusters of Barratt ‘executive homes’. Even being ‘City of Culture’ may prove to be no more than a short-term buzz.

Perhaps one of the problems in finding a cultural identity for a place is that our whole approach to culture has become so transactional.  Instead of description our cultural agencies have to focus on prescription – where’s your mission statements, impacts, KPIs, targets, evaluations, strategies by well-paid consultants?

No useful purpose

So, how brilliant that it was down to an Arup engineer to rhapsodise about the value of playing and doing things “that serve no useful purpose” – in his words.  Government funding agencies wouldn’t give you a penny if you said that was your plan – but a world-class engineering firm recognizes its value to the kids who are playing, to their own staff who are playing with the kids and – as he said – to the sparking of great new engineering concepts.

The economist Diane Coyle, in her book about GDP, says – my paraphrasing – any activity that can be measured by the metrics of productivity, i.e. output per hour, is best done by a robot – and probably soon will be.  Then she goes on “What humans excel at is WASTING TIME, playing, experimenting, creating, exploring.  None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity … but they are the foundations of long-term growth.”  I like to think she meant the long-term growth of individuals as well as of the economy.  It makes obvious sense.  No wonder we love the story of Newton snoozing in his orchard, Archimedes lounging in his bath – major conceptual breakthroughs achieved while doing nothing in particular.

‘Description’ begins to shape ‘state of mind’ – and ‘state of mind’ creates the possibility of new perception, new ambition, new possibility. It’s partly about logic but mostly about mood, it can feed the inconsequential things that maybe do start giving a place a sense of identity and pride.  And as any economist will tell you, growth is driven by confidence and optimism.

So, reflecting on Jonothan’s note to me after our day in Coventry, maybe that’s the economic value of stronger communities.

Hull City of Culture 2017 – impact

The recent evaluation of Hull’s UK City of Culture year suggests that there was a significant boost to the local economy, with positive impacts on jobs, businesses and increased investment. Key findings include:

  • Almost 800 new jobs have been created in the visitor economy and cultural sector since 2013 and the projected value of tourism in 2017 is on track to contribute in excess of £300 million to the economy
  • 1 in 4 businesses surveyed in Hull and East Riding took on new staff in 2017 and 1 in 5 businesses extended their opening hours. Over half of these businesses felt that 2017 had contributed to an increased turnover
  • 64% of businesses who made an investment during 2017 said it was of a higher value as a result of UK City of Culture and 72% made this investment sooner than planned
  • Funding for local cultural activity grew in the build up to 2017, with successful Arts Council England applications increasing by 346%

Fuller information on the evaluation of the City of Culture year is available here.

Coventry’s creative cluster

Stephen Roper, ERC and Warwick Business School

What do we want from creative industries? Why do we think they are important? Productivity? Jobs? Innovation? Or, a combination of all three?

We recently looked at the growth of digital creative industries in Coventry over the last decade. This was based on the DCMS definition of ‘digital creative’ which includes a wide range of manufacturing and service SIC codes. Based on this definition there has been a growth in the number of digital creative enterprises (with one or more employee) across each of the major urban centres of the West Midlands, with Coventry experiencing the fastest overall growth – 5.6 percent pa – over the 2006-16 period. This was equivalent to a rise in the number of digital creative enterprises in Coventry from 663 in 2006 to 1138 by 2016. Sales by digital creative businesses in Coventry also rose over the 2006 to 2016 period, increasing on average by 6.5 percent pa. This was the most rapid growth across any of the major urban centres, and meant that by 2016, digital creative businesses in Coventry had a turnover in excess of £510m. Over the same period employment in the sector grew more slowly, rising by only 1.0 percent pa in Coventry. In 2016, digital creative businesses employed 3,669 people in Coventry, up from 3,336 in 2006.

So, in Coventry growth in the digital creative sector has been through increasing productivity and sales not new jobs. The average number of jobs per firm has also fallen. This pattern reflects what we see in other sectors: fast-growing scale-ups tend not to increase productivity; productivity enhancing firms tend not to produce lots of new jobs. So, let’s be clear about our ambitions for the creative industries.

To complete the story of our recent study of the digital creative sector in Coventry we also did interviews with key informants across the city. These suggested:

  • There is strong competition from Birmingham for firms to relocate and the demand for digital creative skills from the gaming cluster in Warwickshire and digital firms in Birmingham and beyond also limits local skills availability.
  • To date there has not been any systematic support for digital creative businesses in Coventry. Other cities – Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Leicester – have been more determined and ambitious to draw on the benefits and opportunities offered by the digital revolution.
  • The lack of suitable premises means Coventry is not seen as a go-to location for digital creative start-ups or growing businesses. New developments, both planned and currently underway, however, may provide the momentum for change.

A new northern economy in Preston?

Michael Taylor
This is an edited version of an article first featured on the Marple Leaf blog

The Economist recently ran a piece about how Preston has used the power of its “anchor institutions” (the NHS, Preston’s College and UCLAN), to create the model of a smart-procuring, entrepreneurial state for a guide to how Jeremy Corbyn will govern and encourage a thousand co-operatives to bloom.

It seemed like an attempt to do what economists (as opposed to The Economist writers) often do, look for something that’s working and apply a theory to it retrospectively, but it has been the product of some interesting work with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Preston City Council.

Lancashire is no stranger to experiments in economic planning and innovation. In much the same way, Lancashire County Council in the 80s was hailed as the cradle of New Labour. Under leader Louise Ellman in 1983 the council created Lancashire Enterprises, who’s chief executive was urban regeneration visionary David Taylor.  It was the very model of a pump priming activist state, much of the thinking leading to the strcuture of the regional development agencies under Blair and Taylor’s friend John Prescott. The longer term corporate legacy was a utilities support business Enterprise PLC, now part of Amey PLC, in turn the UK subsidiary of Ferrovial. But it also spawned Enterprise Ventures, now part of Mercia Technologies, an active venture capital investor in growth businesses in the North, the Midlands and Scotland.

Preston City Council’s recent ambition has been created out of a response to local government cuts to its budget. just as Lancashire’s response in the 80s was to the wholesale collapse of northern industry. One is a brave, necessary and innovative response, that feels strategic, but is intensely tactical. The earlier one, similarly, fashioned an ambitious response that grew and grew as it proved to have a relevance and need. It’s not to spot the virtue in a locally based procurement strategy, supporting local businesses.

Much of the work on the Preston example, has been done by Neil McInroy from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. As this from the Guardian explains, more of the £1bn plus public sector budgets were spent locally.

Taking that on a stage, Neil’s outline case here, where he argues for ‘a new economic agenda’, that can replace failed neo-liberalism. But I found myself asking at the end of each paragraph, but what about the businesses who’ll create the jobs?

The four pillars of Neil’s argument are: to recognise decline; understand technological shifts; build on local strengths; and invest in the economy of care. In many ways it’s a bold and suitably broad synthesis. But I kept coming back to a common niggle I have with many conversations with people on the left, wouldn’t life just be so much easier if everyone worked for the NHS?

And then the other question, but where are the businesses?

My starting point is that wealth is created in a business by someone having an idea, spotting an opportunity, selling that service or those value added goods for a surplus and growing that enterprise, employing people, their families spend that money locally, pay their taxes, replicate that across the entire economy and that’s what makes the world go round. Larger existing businesses are enticed to stay, to relocate, and a careful co-ordination of their presence almost certainly contributes the conditions for even more people to take risks, build another business, that in turn makes that place even wealthier. The fewer people want to do that, or do it well, then that place gets poorer.

There’s a line at the end of paragraph three that says: “Cities need to invest in social infrastructure and social enterprise and above all, support indigenous small business activity.” My question therefore is how? To use Lancashire as an example again, the red rose county isn’t short of initiatives from the public sector to “support” small business activity. There’s the very noble Boost Business Lancashire for a start, which I should declare I have done some work for. But despite these valiant efforts and more, many of the same systemic issues continue to hold northern towns back and no amount of smart procurement can patch it up.

It brought to mind something Peter Mandelson said as long ago as 2013, that all too frequently ambitious industrial strategies are little more than ‘pea-shooter’ initiatives; haphazard and ineffective programmes too small to make any kind of difference.

And in this context, are we facing something similar? And what does “democratise” the economy mean, other than letting committees of part time councillors decide where to spend money? Spending more state money locally isn’t a new economic strategy, it’s arguably a good thing to do, but it isn’t a paradigm shift it’s been cracked up to be.

There is also need for a regulating, guiding and protecting state, more than has been previously fashionable. But my sense is there are two elephants in the room which the “new economics” thinking doesn’t acknowledge. The first is big business. In Lancashire, again, the major anchor institution of Preston isn’t even in Preston, but the city would be stuffed were it not for BAE Systems at Warton and Salmesbury, and its supply chain.

The second is that hard infrastructure works. It’s not neo-liberal economics to build better roads, rail links and make housing an integrated strategic plank of an industrial strategy, it’s sound social investment. The Treasury methodology needs fixing, and an industrial strategy needs to reach deep into all parts of government, including the Treasury if it is to be effective. Afterall, the return on investment model for Crossrail will not be the same for the Todmorden Curve, but both are necessary.

How we solve a problem like the northern towns and smaller cities hasn’t been taken seriously enough for decades. But we start from where we are, not where we’d like to be.

Regeneration through culture

Is regeneration through culture the way forward for our ‘left behind’ places?

Paul Swinney, Centre for Cities

This article first appeared in the Centre for Cities, October 2017 and is reprinted with the kind permission of the Centre for Cities.

The role of culture in regeneration appears to be back on the radar. Hull’s designation as UK city of culture 2017 has sparked a flurry of articles on the economic benefits it will have. And the Conservative manifesto in the last election tapped into similar thinking, stating that the Tories will move cultural institutions out of London to help bring prosperity to other parts of the country. But what role does culture play in economic regeneration?

Cultural projects are often measured in terms of the economic impact they are going to have, but thorough evaluations do not back these claims up. The What Works Centre for Economic Growth has looked at the economic impact of large sports and culture events and facilities. It found very little evidence of positive impacts on the local economy in terms of jobs and wages, while it found that facilities may push up house prices in their immediate surroundings (benefiting home-owners but not renters).

The fundamental challenge that struggling places face is to attract more business investment in high-skilled activities, which in turn will create more and better-paid jobs. One of the principal reasons they find this difficult to do is because they haven’t got the skilled workers that high-skilled businesses are looking for. The opening of a cultural institution doesn’t change this, as it doesn’t improve the skills of existing residents. It is also unlikely to attract-in skilled workers from elsewhere either, who will look for the availability of a job first, then weigh up the cultural offer of a place after.

This can be seen in a number of examples that have attempted to do this in the past. The Middlesbrough Museum of Modern Art, in the centre of Middlesbrough, is an impressive building, but a walk around its surrounding area suggests that it has done little to change the city’s economic performance. The same could be said for the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, and even the O2 Arena in London. Similarly, the impact of the Sage and the Baltic galleries in Gateshead, which cost a combined £115 million to build, is also unclear. While they may well have had an impact on the wider image of Newcastle, our previous research has shown that between 1998 and 2008 the immediate area round the galleries saw a reduction private sector jobs.

What must be stressed here is that there are many good reasons to opening new cultural institutions or hosting large cultural or sporting events that stretch far beyond economics. The problem is that these initiatives are often either held up as the answer to a place’s economic struggles, or are sold on the economic impact that they are going to have. Neither are a fair measurement for them.

Moreover, cultural projects are often envisaged and implemented in isolation to other policy initiative – which further minimises their impact – or essentially amount to a case of the cart coming before the horse. Barcelona offers an example of how to get this process right, in the way that it incorporated the 1992 Olympics into a wider plan to regenerate the city which included improving skills and infrastructure. Similarly, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum was not conceived as a way to kick-start economic growth in the city, but instead came off the back of years of economic development to restructure the city’s economy.

As such, if the aim is to turn around struggling economies, increasing the job opportunities available and the money in the pockets of people living there, the evidence suggests that culture-led regeneration is unlikely to do the trick. If struggling places are to attract jobs, then they have to deal with the fundamental challenges that prevent high-skilled businesses investing in them. While the specifics will differ from place to place, skills is the biggest challenge in many of them – and this is where the primary focus needs to be.


Keeping a creative focus

Tom Campbell

A decade ago, there was barely a part of the UK that didn’t aspire to be world-leading in the creative industries. Every Regional Development Agency prioritised the sector, and dozens of areas, from Cornwall to Sheffield, adopted the ‘creative’ prefix and associated strategies to boost their creative economies. Much has changed, and much has been learnt since then. But while funding is far from the level it once was, cities and regions continue to develop initiatives to support creative clusters.

An important difference, however, is the greater emphasis on focus and the use of evidence. This is well demonstrated in Coventry and Warwickshire where the LEP is implementing a growth strategy not for the creative industries, or even the audio-visual sector, but exclusively the video games industry – building on the strengths of what has been dubbed ‘Silicon Spa.’[1] While this might have risked upsetting the region’s wider creative industries, it has enabled the LEP to invest its resources more strategically with a bespoke programme of support, skills and trade promotion tailored for its games businesses.

There are several cities in the UK that can claim to be leaders in certain creative industries – or rather, distinctive elements and supply chains of industries. Oxford, for instance, is arguably the global centre for academic journal publishing. Cardiff’s television production industry is thriving, designer-making in Stoke is undergoing a renaissance, Liverpool has recently launched a strategy for growing its renowned music sector, while both Warrington and Dundee have nurtured significant games production clusters.

This more granular approach to economic development is known within the EU by the term ‘smart specialisation’[2], with a recognised process for identifying place-based interventions on the basis of mapping existing strengths and stakeholder engagement. Central to this is the prioritisation of knowledge domains and market niches – specific activities where regions have a competitive advantage and the potential for growth. Through this approach, innovation support programmes in small urban areas have enabled countries such as France and Germany to successfully build up knowledge-intensive regional economies in fields such as advanced manufacturing, chemicals and aerospace.

Given the alarming, and worsening, regional imbalance in the UK’s economic performance[3], a similarly fine-grained approach is badly needed. By contrast, the UK’s large metropolitan centres are competitive because of their breadth and do not need to focus: London’s strengths in a dazzling range of creative industries, from advertising to fashion and film, give it a scale that fosters innovation, attracts skilled workers and captures investment. Strategies intended to replicate this and simplistically boost local creative economies will not work for the likes of Coventry. Not every city can be a centre for feature film production or home to multi-national advertising agencies. But through an approach rooted in depth rather than breadth, and an understanding of distinctive strengths, markets and supply chains, there is real potential for cities, whatever their size, to flourish in the global creative economy.