How the UK is building its creative communities

The UK’s TV, film, gaming and creative industries are forging ahead, and clusters are developing in several cities.

July 11, 2019

Great ideas rarely happen in isolation. That’s something the UK’s £100 billion creative industries sector knows well as it looks to build clusters to further drive innovation and create jobs.

It’s starting from a strong base; the UK’s creative industries, encompassing TV & film, gaming, publishing, arts and culture and advertising already employ more than 2 million people. And with the sector expanding twice as fast as the rest of the economy, its importance continues to rise.

Now, government-sponsored initiatives are looking to provide a further boost by investing £80 million in nine existing creative hubs in cities across the UK, including Edinburgh, Bristol, Leeds, Cardiff and London. These aim to bring top creative minds together with universities and commercial partners to spark cutting-edge products, companies and experiences.

Successful clusters evolve for different reasons, but you can often boil it down to a handful of key components, notes Michael Davis, JLL’s Head of London Unlimited - access to higher education talent, proximity to high levels of commerce and a diverse mix of living accommodation. “But being surrounded by like-minded people is still the main factor, as it is all ultimately about creating a forum for the sharing of ideas,” he adds.

Dundee is another of the clusters in focus. Since the Timex watch factory closed down in 1992, it has all been about harnessing the highly skilled population, who initially were responsible for the ZX Spectrum computer, and then later the defining computer games Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto.

The city’s Abertay University began offering a computer games degree in 1997, it’s developed into an important hub for the video gaming industry. The new £9 million Innovation for Games and Media Enterprise centre aims to build on this success by bringing together researchers, students and business leaders to foster innovation and knowledge transfer.

“Dundee is a poster child for how different bodies can work together for the greater good,” says Davis.  

Top-down approach

Yet just because a building is old doesn’t mean it’ll make a quality historic hotel.

Yet there’s more than one way to build a successful creative cluster. The arrival of well-known brands is a significant factor in encouraging others to make the move.

The key turning point for Salford Quay’s MediaCityUK stemmed from the BBC’s 2006 decision to relocate 2,500 jobs to the area, in a government-influenced effort to decentralise the corporation. ITV followed, as have numerous media and digital businesses.

“The Pie Factory at MediaCityUK is full of smaller companies doing or wanting to do business with the BBC and now ITV,” says Davis. “When you get those industry-leading names people follow, and it redefines the opportunity.”

Whether Channel 4’s arrival in Leeds can have a similar impact remains to be seen.

“Channel 4’s move to Leeds will undoubtedly help,” says Davis. He says it could have the same catalytic effect on the city as the BBC had on Manchester.

Costs count

Elsewhere, creative cluster formations are more organic, driven by a melding of like-minded people, space and affordability.

In Belfast, for instance, large warehouses around the docks are being repurposed, primarily by media companies.

“While life sciences often want newer buildings with more advanced specification, TV, film and other media businesses tend to require expanses of cheap space,” says Davis. “What they look for is volume, value and versatility. The rejuvenation of former industrial areas will therefore be a trend to watch due to the abundance of former industrial buildings lying underutilised around the UK.”

Technology is a key enabler in the process, freeing creatives and entrepreneurs to disperse to non-traditional centres. The rollout of 5G across the UK could be a particularly important leveller. 

Joint efforts

While the public sector is key in creating clusters, they can only develop with cooperation from private sector landlords.

“If you have space at the right price, most start-up businesses will take a view,” says Davis. “For people to cluster, there has to be a creative undercurrent, and that generally perpetuates with the addition affordable workspace and living accommodation. Quality of life then becomes important for companies to stay.”

Birmingham’s Custard Factory is a prime example. “The Custard Factory in Digbeth is now full of media companies, architects, post-production companies, and has become the cool building of Birmingham, which is itself seeing a renaissance thanks to the forthcoming HS2 high speed railway and the Commonwealth Games.”

The building’s success is now spurring further development in and around it, bringing more office, retail and residential space.

Success though brings challenges, notably continued affordability. In response, the Creative Land Trust, in London, is bringing together public, philanthropic and social investment funds to secure affordable workspaces for artists and creatives.

“Affordability for the arts and creative crowd is objective number one,” says Davis. “If you can’t nurture these dynamic people, they’ll go elsewhere.”