Time for a polemic.
Seems to me that these days it’s common for depressed urban areas to re-invigorate themselves as cultural hubs (or whatever version of that phrase the people writing the bid documents and the press releases opt to use). Now, let me be clear on this, I’m not knocking this one little bit, I’m all for places focussing more on the arts, culture and creativity. Good for Hull, good for Stoke on Trent, good for anywhere which does it.
But, in this rush to re-invigorate city centres, we’re missing important places; we aren’t creating cultural hubs in our market towns and rural locations. When did you last seen creative companies with offices in Vancouver and Bandford Forum, or Shanghai and Bridport, or Berlin and Shrewsbury? Why is it always London, or Edinburgh, or Bristol, or Liverpool? Just doesn’t happen does it? I think it’s time that, as a nation, we seriously looked at tapping into the vast creative resources of what is, after all, the biggest part of the country. For all that cities are big, the part of the UK which isn’t cities is much bigger. This isn’t just a creativity blind spot, it’s an everything blind spot. For all the politicians of every flavour play lip service to the importance of rural britain, it’s rural britain which gets neglected. Go to London, or Bristol, or some such and you can see more than one bus at one time: go into the country and you’re lucky to see more than one bus a week. Libraries close. Schools get less money. Services get cut and people with money from the cities either retire here or just buy up properties as second homes at prices which prevent locals buying (or even in many cases, renting) which pushes up migration from the country and rural homelessness. So the fact that it’s cities which become creative hubs is just one projecting bit of a huge iceberg. Walk round any market town and you’ll see loads of premises for rent, shops which have closed down because the supermarkets have taken their trade, offices above shops, small manufacturing companies which have closed; look behind the pretty pretty tourist facade and you see market towns in something of a crisis. These premises would of course still make great shops, or small manufacturing units, but they’d also make great locations for creative businesses.
Not only do we have premises, we have people. Lots and lots of talented people, and especially young people. One of the big issues is the lack of opportunity for young people, there aren’t a lot of jobs and if you can’t drive then is pretty much there aren’t any jobs. Particularly, there isn’t a great variety of jobs. School leavers here often go off to college, and then don’t come back because to work in the field they want they need the employment tonnage of the big cities where they have to not only pay off their student loans but shell out for expensive accommodation.
Of course, the majority of the UK (and I’m going to now rather acidly call the bits which aren’t cities) has loads of creative businesses of all kinds. Small and successful design firms abound (a couple of friends of mine own one), and there are craft workshops of all kinds doing very well thank you. What’s more the Internet has allowed these small businesses access to a national, if not global, marketplace so they’re not just trying to sell to people in the same town. The very existence of all these creative firms shows how much talent and will we have once you find yourself in the land where every road has neither a pavement nor streetlights. So what’s my problem?
My problem is that this pool of creative talent isn’t recognised and it’s not supported in growing. These are self employed people and small firms operating often on tight margins. I’m sure they’d love to be able to offer places for apprentices and internships for the creatively motivated young people leaving schools and colleges but it’s not really an option for them. What if there was financial support for businesses to expand, with grants for premises and equipment, and adequate public transport to allow for young people to take up the apprenticeships and internships? What if not only did we attract production companies to do their locations shoots for tv and movies in small towns, but to base themselves here as well? Then we’d also attract the companies who provide support for them as well and then there would be opportunities for local people to work in them without moving away. If we were serious about affordable housing (rather than putting a token few homes on an another domitory executive housing project) people leaving university who wanted to work in the creative industries could move back home out of the cities instead of them. With all these folks the town centres could become thriving places in the evening with all the jobs in bars, restaurants, theatres and cinemas that would create.
You could well say my dream of seeing a feature in a magazine where they visit a major digital effects company based in Bridport, or an international design studio based in Fakenham. or hearing about the Sussex Cultural Hub is just dream. But then again, 20 years ago you’d have laughed at the idea that you’d have trendy cafes in Shoreditch or that one of the big players in the film industry could be New Zealand…..