This article cropped up on my RSS feed this morning which was interesting and relevant enough to tweet about, but thinking about it a bit more, it got me slightly riled, and not just because it’s Clegg. The headline (as is usually the case with these things) is slightly misleading, but nevertheless, his main proposal seems to be to give cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle the “capital to compete with other cities”. This will presumably be through local enterprise partnerships, that put business leaders at the forefront of policy decision-making. This, by itself, is not a bad idea. In fact, in terms of local economic recovery, it’s quite a good idea as business acumen coupled with local knowledge will encourage wiser investment strategies than would be cooked up in Whitehall. However, what I think Clegg is missing (or more precisely, what the people who tell him what to say have missed) is the fact that the distance between investment and successful development is even further apart in the creative industries than it is in other sectors of the economy. Offering incentives to car manufactures to relocate in a particular region is a fairly straightforward strategy, as long as the labour force is there, it’s a fairly simple equation (negating the complexities of globalisation of course…), but attempting to stimulate the creative industries from a ‘top-down’ approach is a far more risky strategy. The preponderance of SMEs and freelancers in the creative industries creates a complex (socio-)economic regional (more often than not, urban) landscape consisting of social networks, tacit knowledge, informal exchange and untraded interdependencies (to use Economic Geography undergraduate speak). The infusing of everyday knowledge that cannot be codified with more stringent, mechanistic properties of business practices is a synergistic interplay that the creative industries undertake continuously, and, by no means gets it right itself. So why would a local enterprise partnership know any different?
In attempting to redistribute creative industry activity away from London, Clegg and the coalition are fighting the grain of the urban social milieu. The creative industries have built up in London for a reason far beyond it being the HQ of the BBC and other major media companies. It provides a fabric and a diversity which stimulates further creation, the sum is more than the whole of it’s parts. Ploughing money into other cities to build a MediaCityUK, or some other large scale creative industry game reserve is a dangerous game if the ‘ground level’ ingredients are not there in the first place. Cities stimulate creative activity through their aesthetics, through their (sub-) culture, through their social problems, through their degradation – sometimes they are lucky enough for this creative activity to take on profit-making ventures of it’s own, but this is not a given. Clegg and his band or merry men would do well to realise this.