Creative sector has role to play in rural areas, says Nesta

Traditionally, cultural and economic innovation is firmly linked to urban centres, particularly those of London and the South East.

But the UK’s rural areas are home to almost a fifth of the population, and despite the fact that the role of creative industries in these regions is sometimes overlooked, they have enjoyed strong growth over the past decade.

Rural Innovation, a new report from Nesta, shines a spotlight on the role of innovation outside our major urban centres. It argues that perception of business and innovation in rural versus urban regions is often polarised. The reality is far more complex.

Despite the fact that a third of creative jobs are based in London and the South East, the sector also thrives outside these areas, the report says. Its role outside these regions needs to be more widely acknowledged and understood.

Sami Mahroum, lead author of the report, says the prominence of the creative community outside cities is being fuelled by ‘in-migration’ – people mainly in their forties who decide to move out for economic and lifestyle reasons.

This group brings with it ready-made social and business ties with cities and wider communities that can benefit rural areas. He says, ‘Mid-career people tend to have developed social and business networks. This helps to reduce the historic disadvantage of isolation in rural locations.’

The report also argues the creative sector is now a key part of the tourism offering in many rural areas – taking the form of festivals, performances, open studio events, galleries and craft centres.

By providing activities not dependent on the fickle English climate, they help combat the extreme seasonality faced by many tourist businesses, and also attract a different, often younger, type of tourist.

An example is the North Yorkshire Open Studios event, which has now been running for three years and attracts younger visitors and buyers from Manchester and other local urban centres.

The growing influence of the creative industries in greener areas has gone hand-in-hand with the spread of broadband Internet access, widely unavailable outside large cities and towns until the late 1990s.

The trend towards downshifting has also played its part – concerns about work/life balance have prompted growing numbers of people to migrate to rural areas.

Mark Jones is managing director of Work House Marketing, based in the heart of Lancashire’s Ribble Valley. He claims that a rural business location can be both positive and negative.

‘We are based by a river and a barn and have planning permission for a new 170m2 photographic studio. It’s a fantastic place to work, but the onus is on us to entice the right people who want to work in this environment,’ says Jones.

‘The negative comes when clients feel they need recognised city centre-based groups, which they perceive as having less risk. It’s perhaps harder for us to attract large clients.’

There is still work to be done to encourage more creative businesses to rural regions, the report suggests. While creative industries have risen up the UK policy agenda, the attitude of rural district councils is often negative.

Many creative businesses report difficulties with planning applications while trying to change the use of agricultural buildings to creative premises.

The report also calls for more research into how our creative industries operate in rural regions – the practicality of forging stronger ties with local business, for example.

But Mahroum argues that the creative companies based outside main centres also contribute to local communities in less tangible ways. ‘The relationship extends to delivering local folklore-based heritage and helping to create brands and stories that will become part of history,’ he says.

Rural innovation report

• The ‘in-migration’ trend is seeing people mainly move out of urban areas for economic and lifestyle reasons

• Widespread broadband Internet access in rural areas is accelerating this trend, as is the general search for a better work/life balance

• The creative sector is a major part of the tourism offering in many rural areas, in the form of festivals, performances, galleries and craft centres

• Creative businesses often report problems with planning applications while trying to convert agricultural buildings for creative use

• More research is needed into how creative industries operate in rural areas – for example, how they can build stronger relationships with local companies

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