Link up or sink?

Proposed cuts in funding are forcing regional design networks to consider new strategies and sources of revenue. Angus Montgomery reports

With public-sector funding likely to be thin on the ground over the next year, whatever the result of the imminent General Election, regional design networks are being forced to plan ahead to preserve their financial future.

The networks currently get their cash from various pots of public and private money, with a large proportion coming from regional development agencies, the Government-funded bodies that aim to drive economic growth in the regions.

With the Tories widely expected to axe the RDAs if they come to power, and Labour almost certain to cut their funding should it stay in, regional design networks are being forced to consider how they can operate in the future. However, the varying histories and regional contexts of the groups mean their visions differ vastly.

The self-proclaimed ‘radical’ vision put forward by Roger Proctor, chairman of the South West Design Forum, is for regional design networks to survive by creating projects that link in with Government strategies – to more easily secure central Government funding – and collaborating on a national level to get these projects as prominent a platform as possible.

Proctor, who spoke at the Shape the Future of Design Networks event hosted by the Design Council last month, says, ‘It’s pretty clear that RDAs are going to be under the cosh, whatever happens, so it seems sensible for us to look at alternative models.

‘It’s critical to do projects that fit into Government strategies, and to do that you have to create strategies that you know will be fundable. We’ve got to go further than just being networks – we have to show Government the role that design has to play.’

Proctor proposes the formation of a national forum of design networks, in partnership with the Design Council, which would allow policies and initiatives developed by regional groups to take up a national platform.

But Peter Spence, director of the South Coast Design Forum, envisages an alternative model of regional networks operating as independent, privately run entities, receiving no public funding at all.

He admits, however, that this vision is based in part on the development of the SCDF, which has long relied on raising private funds, and can afford, with Spence as a full-time paid director, to operate in a more entrepreneurial fashion than other groups.

Spence says, ‘As we’re in the relatively wealthy South East, we’ve never expected funding. We grew in a different fashion to other networks – we’ve always wanted to be independent and provide our own stability.’ Spence cites potential money-making assets as the SCDF newsletter and website, adding that the group could sell advertising space on these to generate cash.

He says, ‘I think there are far too many vested interests for everyone to be brought together – all the groups are different, geographically and culturally.’

Spence says there is a need for collaboration, but that this should be with national bodies, rather than regions getting together. He says, ‘National bodies – with the exception of British Design Innovation which is based in Brighton – tend to be London-centric. They can find it difficult to engage with their regional membership.

‘By the same token, we can find it difficult to get people together and put on events. There must be some scope for collaboration with the national networks putting on events and us acting as their recruiting arm regionally and being their people on the ground.’

Mike Dowson, director of Design Network North, admits, ‘If there was no funding it would make things very difficult,’ although he points out that the organisation, which was established in March 2009, has funding in place until March 2011 from RDA One North East.

He also adds that the £13m Design Centre for the North, the planned home for DNN, will provide some stability and security for the organisation. The new building, in Gateshead, is being designed by Red Box Design Group and has received planning permission. Construction work is expected to start this year.

Dowson says, ‘The impact of this new building in terms of funding is two-fold: it means One North East is committed to our future, but it also means we have to make the centre commercially viable.’ Dowson cites charging for workshops and events as a possible revenue stream.

Like Spence, Dowson sees scope for collaboration – not necessarily between regional networks (‘We shouldn’t be as rigid as that,’ he says), but between networks and national bodies. He explains, ‘The Design Council has a role to pull us together. It should be helping us to generate funding, support and policy. It should provide a national platform for policy generated by regional networks.’

But whatever the potential solution, there is little time left for action. Proctor says, ‘We only have a small window and we have to do something – come February everyone will be too wrapped up in the election to do anything. We can’t afford to just talk – we need action.’

Group dynamics

  • Key national networks are the Design Council, the Design Business Association, British Design Innovation, the Society of British Interior Design, the British Institute of Interior Design, the UK Web Design Association, the Chartered Society of Designers and D&AD
  • There are currently nine regional development agencies across England
  • There are more than 20 regional design networks in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Jim Richardson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    As someone who has run a design consultancy for the past decade and as an entrepreneur I would welcome the end of public funding for these kind of organisations.

    When faced with the realities of business, these organisation will need to think about what they deliver, and adapt what they do to tailor for a real demand or to appear to commercial sponsors.

    Many will be unsustainable and disappear, but those which remain will be far more in tune with the needs of our sector, and the commercial realities which we face every day.

    Jim Richardson
    Managing Director

  • Roy Brooks November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    As Jim’s comment – axe the lot.

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