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Rethinking Creative Clusters

Rethinking Creative Clusters for the Levelling-Up Agenda

When we talk about “Creative Clusters”, we tend to think of them as either location-based clusters – usually major metropolitan cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds – or industry-based clusters, which themselves tend to also default into geographical clusters around major centres – the games industry in the West Midlands, the TV and film clusters in Manchester or Cardiff, the advertising and design agencies in London. 

So where does this approach to clustering leave the “left-behind” smaller industrial towns, coastal or rural communities at the heart of the government’s levelling up agenda? If we are to even begin to understand how to tackle the problem of our left-behind towns, we first need to understand them. And this – in part – means rethinking our approach to creative clusters. It means addressing the problem of making the invisible more visible. 

Policy Interventions

Since his very first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has made clear his intent to “level-up” across the country and revive the fortunes of the UK’s “left-behind” towns and cities. 

Structural funds and instruments are being put in place to achieve this aim, many of which have been – or can be – specifically targeted at supporting the development of creative clusters. These include: 

The success of these funds – and where and how they are targeted – relies very heavily on the research base that helps define and identify those “left-behind” places and their specific needs – with baselines to be set and future impacts to be evaluated. 

Problem of Scale

The problem is that – through no fault of its own – the research base is ill-equipped to do this. The scale of the problem is itself a problem of scale: many of those left-behind towns  – particularly in coastal, rural and some smaller industrial towns identified as being at the heart of this issue – are too small to provide enough meaningful data to be statistically relevant from a research point of view. 

As a result, current methods and underlying datasets will always favour the bigger creative towns, cities and clusters that we are already very familiar with – London, Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, Birmingham and so on. This only seems to ensure that the left-behind and forgotten towns continue to be forgotten, ignored and at risk of being even further left-behind. 

As the lead organisation behind both the Pioneering Places Research and Knowledge Base project, we represent a number of towns that very definitely fit the “left-behind” description, including coastal towns such as Dover, Folkestone and Ramsgate as well as the city of Canterbury.  

Many of these towns include some of the most deprived wards in the UK. They have all identified – and, to varying degrees, benefitted from – public investment in culture and the creative industries as one of the key local strategies to address these issues. Yet many will not feature in publications or reports, the success – of failures – of interventions will rarely be captured or reflected as robustly as is necessary and, consequently, they will continue to slip beneath the radar of further policy interventions or funding. 

The Future of Towns and Cities

Let’s look at two recent reports as examples –  KPMG’s The Future of Towns and Cities Post-Covid-19, (January 2021), and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) Green Budget chapter on Levelling Up, (October 2020).

KPMG’s Future of Towns report focuses on more than 100 towns and cities across the UK and – importantly for the creative and cultural sectors – finds a direct correlation between the strength of a town’s cultural assets and its post-Covid economic vulnerability; 

“Cities like London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester benefit from a strong cultural offering that partially compensates for the loss in commuter footfall and retail outlets on the high street. On the other end of the scale, places like Warrington, Basingstoke, Hemel Hempstead and Bracknell are hit relatively hard by the loss of commuter footfall and retail offering, while have more limited cultural offering to attract people to their centres.”

No surprise that larger cities, with a wealth of cultural assets, fare better. But how does this work in the smaller towns that have strategically focused on and invested in developing a strong cultural offer and supporting a local creative economy – Folkestone or Margate being two such strong examples? Well, they’re not on the list. This is because the KPMG report is based on ONS data with a population cut-off of 75,000, which automatically excludes them, as well as other coastal towns such as Clacton, Dover, Scarborough, Newquay and Morecambe, for example. 

District Data, Town Intervention

One possible solution is to group smaller left-behind towns by region – the approach the IFS takes in its Green Budget chapter on Levelling Up, which ranks its index of vulnerability across 372 local authorities. 

The problem here is when the interventions are at town level – the Towns Fund for example – while the data is based on district level. Failing to pinpoint specific towns and what interventions are needed at town level can lead to greater disparities within a single Local Authority or region. In the deprived towns of Thanet, for example, statistics will show that – as a Local Authority – Thanet is line to benefit from a Town Fund investment in the region of £25m – which, the Government might assume, will go some way towards addressing Thanet’s ranking in the IFS index of vulnerability. The issue here is that this potential Towns Fund investment is solely focused on the Thanet town of Margate while the nearby town of Ramsgate – also in Thanet and itself home to some of the most deprived wards in the country amongst its population of 40,000 – will continue to be left-behind. 

Magnify that up to a national level and this underlying issue is magnified too. Thanet, for example, is listed in the top bracket of the IFS index of vulnerability to short-term economic impact of Covid-19. So how much further left-behind will deprived wards in coastal towns such as Margate, Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone find themselves when the language of government – often unchallenged by an evidence base lacking the required specificity – says they’re part of “the wealthy South East” and the wrong side of the North/South divide from an intervention point of view?

Clusters and Microclusters

The “clustering” approach might help to address these issues. But here, again, there remains a problem of how and where those clusters are identified. While there is a large body of research looking at creative clusters by industry, this again tends to default to geography – hence we talk of the games industries in Dundee, Leeds and the West Midlands, the film and TV sectors in Cardiff, Bristol and Manchester or the Fashion, Textiles and Technology cluster centred on the East London Fashion and Textiles Hub, (as was the case in the AHRC’s recent Creative Industries Clusters programme). Where do fashion giant Burberry’s manufacturing centres in the small Yorkshire towns of Castleford or Keighley feature in this? 

Dr Josh Siepel’s Creative Radar report for the Creative PEC on Creative Microclusters is a step in the right direction. In seeking to identify and classify these “small engines of growth”, this report by PEC researchers at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University if Sussex “uses a combination of survey data and novel web-scraping techniques to identify where the UK’s creative businesses are located, to what extent they are grouped together in ‘microclusters’ and the benefits of clustering”.  

There are both advantages and disadvantages to the approach of using web-scraped data, which Dr Siepel fully acknowledges. From the point of view of identifying smaller or hard-to-quantify towns and businesses, there are distinct advantages which go some way, at least, towards addressing issues caused by lack of large, more established, ONS datasets or the limitations of SIC codes. But whilst the drawbacks of these more traditional methods are often acknowledged without it necessarily impacting on their perceived robustness, the same cannot be said of the drawbacks of web-scraped data. Perhaps unfairly, such innovative approaches are still perceived with some scepticism, or at least not as robust or recognised as more traditional research methods. 

So we are left with the problem of what to do with smaller towns and cities and where they fit in our notions of creative clusters. 

Rethinking the Cluster

Perhaps there is a solution in looking beyond creative clusters that are defined by geography. 

Just as the digital age has caused a fundamental shift in realising that networks and networking need not be based around a location or physical space, so the same is true of clusters – which are themselves, in essence, a network.

Clusters – like any successful network – are connected by shared ideals, principles, traits, goals and behaviours. They can be connected through shared funding, policies or strategies. In this respect, the four Pioneering Places sites – Canterbury, Dover, Folkestone and Ramsgate – may be considered a creative cluster. Individually, these towns and cities are mostly too small to register on the ONS population cut-off of 75,000 that underpins the KPMG Future of Towns and Cities report, for example. But collectively they have a sizeable population that’s bigger than Brighton’s, coupled with a significant dataset of creative businesses and cultural assets. 

What happens when we start to think of creative clusters in this way? What else might be included? How about the towns set to receive the Towns Fund investment, or those recently-announced recipients of the Future High Streets Fund? Can these also be considered as geographically-dispersed, non-sector specific, creative clusters? 

Of course, for any such approach to work, the somewhat loose connections between these towns and cities must be made more tangible, solid and secure. This is precisely the model we have been working towards with the Pioneering Places Research and Knowledge Base, bringing together the four sites in East Kent to collaborate, share knowledge and learning and to partner with wider national organisations – including, for example, the Centre for Cultural Value – to share what we have learned as they work towards developing a common framework for evaluation. This model of peer learning networks, knowledge sharing, partnership work and common approaches to data collection and evaluation must be an intrinsic part of these new ‘creative clusters’, with the resulting reports and learning fully supported and recognised by policymakers and researchers alike. 

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