Forget tax breaks, the creative industries need to concentrate on the boring stuff

02 April 2013

In this guest post, BOP associate and novelist Tom Campbell argues that a strong skills and training base is the key to the future success of the UK’s creative industries.

Last month’s Budget contained the kinds of scraps for creative industries that we’ve become accustomed to, with some commissioning and skills money for digital content, and hints of future tax cuts for special effects companies. While support for the sector is always welcome, and doubtless some good projects will result, such stand-alone initiatives only compound the sense of drift and incoherence affecting the sector. It’s now two years since George Osborne established the Creative Industries Council, chaired by Secretaries of State and with senior industry representation, but after a flurry of initial activity, not much seems to have happened in the last twelve months.

Yet although many in the creative industries bemoan the absence of an economic plan for their sector, what they recommend themselves can hardly be regarded as strategic. All too often it amounts to a self-serving wish list of tax breaks and deregulation, without any commensurate investment on their part. Above all, from both government and industry, there is a desire for quick wins – the magic bullet of a grant, tax cut or promotional campaign that will give them the spurt of growth they want. But what the creative sector really needs is quite different and a lot more boring.

Policy makers talk about the things that most excite them: how to encourage more risk-taking and an entrepreneurial culture, the importance of visionary business leaders, and of course, the constant refrain that ‘we need new business models’. But do we really? BMW sells cars, Apple sells computing devices. Nothing very innovative about those business models – they just make well-designed, high quality things that people pay for. And do we really need charismatic leaders, or just a skilled workforce who knows how to make these kinds of things? For all the discussions around technological innovation and entrepreneurship, wealth-generating innovations are rarely made by chief executives but by highly skilled employees working diligently in a field they have established long-term expertise in.

Much is made of our creative start-ups. But despite their profile, start-ups are only a small part of the story and, at worst, a distraction. As the economist Ha-Joon Chang has pointed out, some of the poorest places on the planet are also the most entrepreneurial and there is little correlation between a country’s rate of new business formation and its economic success. The start-ups and micro enterprises in East London are no more an indicator of the health of the UK’s creative industries than the thousands of hatchlings racing down the beach are any guarantee that the sea turtle is not on the brink of extinction. Of course, almost every big business was once a small one, and incubators and other forms of support are helpful, but establishing a business is the easy bit. Growing a business so that it has the size and structure to generate significant employment, brand value, intellectual property and export earnings is the real challenge.

So how do we get there? Well, not through tax breaks, wars against red tape or, even, more venture capital. We need the things that policy makers and business groups don’t talk enough about: high quality, affordable education, properly resourced apprenticeships, prestigious technical colleges, and continuous professional development programmes. We need businesses and educational providers to work together – not simply to churn out graduates to slot into jobs, but to equip them with the kinds of in-depth skills that can be applied and built upon in the workplace. We also need creative businesses to interact differently with one another – not just as rivals, suppliers or contractors but rather as members of the same value chain, who can improve their competitiveness through a shared approach to skills, research and development and technical standards. There are of course models for these things already in the UK: the apprenticeship programmes run by Mulberry, or the partnership between Bournemouth University and Framestore post-production house. There are also organisations already in place who can help to achieve this – the sector skills councils, trade unions, trade associations. But they need to be better resourced and strengthened, and they need to be encouraged to come together to work towards long-term results.

This will require not just investment, but also high levels of trust and social cohesion. Governments need to be confident that businesses aren’t going to simply relocate to whichever country charges less corporation tax, employers need to be sure that skilled staff aren’t going to switch jobs, and the workforce needs to feel that if they do improve their skills there will be decent jobs and progression routes within their organisation. The culture of unpaid interns, temporary contract workers and low levels of in-house training needs to be challenged – not just on the grounds of fair access and social justice, but because of the corrosive impact it is having on our long-term competitiveness.

We need to stop ‘celebrating’ the UK’s creative sector, and start doing all the boring, necessary things that will sustain it. It won’t be easy. It will mean doing things that many entrepreneurs dislike – attending meetings about qualifications, developing industry strategies, drafting occupational standards, negotiating co-funding agreements with public agencies. And government policy makers will have to spend less time hanging out in Shoreditch talking about new business models and more time in Further Education colleges learning about skills and training. But if we can get the boring stuff right, we might one day have an economy that is worth celebrating not simply because it is creative, but because it is successful.

Chris Gibbon

Comment

I think the first half of this article nails the situation quite accurately, particularly the point about a misguided focus on 'innovation' as an abstract concept, and the comparison of start-up culture to the plight of the sea turtle. Brilliant analogy. But I feel it rather runs out of steam when proposing the solution as more collaboration with public agencies, further education colleges, skills councils and trade unions. In my home city, public agencies, skills councils and further education colleges do their bit in strangling the growth of the creative industries. Apprenticeships are a brilliant idea, but I very much doubt that 'in depth skills' will be learnt by spending more time in the FE college and less time in the enterprise. In fact, the concept that employers are out to exploit via unpaid internships, and that you need a college component to keep the employer in balance and instil the 'real' skills, is the most off-putting thing about running apprenticeships. What we need is more money channeled into real vocational apprenticeships and less to FE colleges and Skills Councils. Self-serving and short term? No I speak as someone who finds it desperately hard to get the skills we need, and believes that taking people in at ground level is the most likely way to solve the problem.

RE: Supply chain point. I've never really understood this. The creative industries are founded on a mix of competition and collaboration, it's entirely normal. What's not normal is trying to get them to operate in a public sector agency 'partnership' model. In fact, I'm not sure that works so well for the public sector either.

Jake Grimley · 2 April 2013, 09:48 · #