Do “the creative industries” really matter for city economies?

That bloody elephant in Nantes again. Image: Getty.

Creative industries have long held a special place in economic development. But recent discussions that I’ve been party to in relation to the industrial strategy have underlined to me how confused the thinking on the creative industries is. Here are three areas where this is particularly apparent.

The definition of the creative industries itself is a source of confusion. According to DCMS, it is a combination of nine different industries ranging from architecture to fashion design, and including crafts, libraries and museums in between. This creates confusion on two counts.

The first is the mixing of highly productive industries like computer programming with much less productive activities like artistic performance. One sells to international markets, while the other is much more likely to rely on public subsidy to make ends meet. For a policymaker concerned about increasing productivity, one is much more relevant than the other.

The second is the mixing of industries (e.g. architecture, computer programming) with employment in cultural amenities, such as museums. By grouping cultural amenities in with businesses, we very quickly get into boosterist language about the supposed economic impact of such institutions in order to justify their grouping with the industries.

This is positively encouraged by the government, which requests that bids for things like City of Culture status set out the economic impact they will have. So in order to get funding, bidding bodies need to play the game. The result? We get grand proclamations on the economic impact of a City of Culture programme, no doubt sourced from the pages of a report written by a handsomely-paid consultant (the same is true of lower productivity industries in the definition too).

But this sadly distorts objectives and unfairly expects cultural institutions or activities to do something that they just aren’t able to deliver. Investment in a library is not done for any direct economic benefit, while investment in a museum should not be expected to bring about culture-led regeneration. Yet all these things are all too regularly confused, with April’s House of Lords report on seaside towns being the latest example.


Crucially, playing on these terms means that this is an argument that advocates of culture, in particular, are likely to lose. There’s no way we should expect libraries, crafts or museums to be making a direct contribution to improving the UK’s productivity. The data shows that not only do these activities have below average productivity, it’s actually lower today than in 1990 (as we should expect). And yet strangely exactly these arguments are being made about activities that are simultaneously reliant on public sector subsidy to make ends meet.

Losing this argument is a shame because cultural investment is important – it is likely to have impacts on things like civic pride and it exposes people to new ideas and experiences, for example. These are worthy aims that all policymakers should be attempting to achieve. But we should be clear about the reasons that we are making such investment, and be reasonable regarding the impacts we expect it to achieve. In terms of the industrial strategy, increasing productivity is not one of them.

A final source of confusion is the conflation of creative industries and creativity.

In response to the critiques above, the conversation usually then segues into the importance of creativity in the economy. This is exactly right. Creativity and new ideas are what drive innovation, which in turn drives long-run productivity growth. And policy should look to support this.

But let’s be clear. Despite being similar in name, the creative industries have no exclusivity over creativity. And it is not clear that supporting these specific industries through a sector deal, for example, improves the creative capacity of a local or national economy. Instead, improving education across the country would seem like a much more direct way to do so.

I don’t say this to be unkind or because I have any particular issue with the creative industries; although I’m sure there are many that will take umbrage with the above. I instead say this in the hope that we can bring clarity to what it is that we’re trying to achieve with different policy interventions – be that productivity, cultural engagement or civic pride. Because if we don’t have this clarity of thought, we’re all just going to end up disappointed when our expectations don’t get met.

You can hear more on this topic on our latest podcast.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.