Mayor Livingstone and his capital design idea

As the Greater London Authority recognises the creative industries’ annual contribution to London’s output, Mike Exon wants to see its ideas put into action

The Greater London Authority’s bid for recognition by ‘the creative industries’ was launched by London Mayor Ken Livingstone at the beginning of this month (DW 3 October). Alongside a highly detailed report on the economics of 13 sectors – from design to publishing – comes an assurance that the GLA is there to help creative businesses. Even if it doesn’t quite yet know how.

Unfortunately, what is striking about Creativity: London’s Core Business, as the report is called, is the GLA’s apparent lack of insight into the nature of creative companies. If the creative industries are ‘the next big thing’, as the report concludes, what does that say of the phenomenon to date?

To its credit the GLA has done its homework, although the study does take a lead from earlier work by the likes of The Department of Culture Media and Sport and The Design Council. Such attempts to quantify the value of creativity have not, until now, focused on the UK capital, which – like it or not – is the hub of creative Britain.

In a nutshell, the report’s thrust is that the creative sector in London is outperforming other sectors of industry. Behind ‘business services’, it generates more wealth than any other.

Great. But more important is what the GLA plans actually to do for these businesses. The Mayor has set up a Creative Industries Commission to advise on actionable future policy. Its 15 members have not yet been selected. But they are due to report back to Livingstone next year and their findings will be worked into his wider ‘culture strategy’.

‘This is very much the enquiry stage, which is aiming to find out what we need to do and where do we go from here,’ says a spokesman for the GLA.

‘Some of the key questions that the commission will try to answer will be whether the structures exist to support the creative industries – such as training, business skills and affordable work spaces, and if not how should they be put in place.’

It is understood that the industrialist Michael Frye will chair the commission. Design Museum director Alice Rawsthorn is likely to be one of the panelists. Any policy proposals deemed to have legs will be taken forward by the GLA’s development arm, the London Development Agency.

‘The aim is for it not to be a talking shop, but a focused enquiry looking at the lessons learned from successful areas elsewhere in the country and the rest of the world. It will run as a series of closed sessions, for nine months, with the results published at the end of each session,’ says a spokeswoman for the LDA.

One of the main planks of the commission’s work will be examining how the GLA can support and develop ‘creative clusters’.

It has long been recognised that creative businesses tend to group in areas like Silicon Valley in California or London’s Soho. The aim is to try to emulate these creative crucibles.

The GLA is pledging to increase its backing for pockets of creative workspace, as it has done already with west London’s Westbourne Studios, off Portobello Road – funding the venture to the tune of £500 000 and securing its lease.

The studios house about 100 creative businesses in an eye-catching development under the Westway. They were an instant hit and have a two-year waiting list, according to Third Planet marketing manager Nadia Kokni, whose group moved in at the beginning of the year.

‘It’s a really nice, cool building with a really laid-back, casual feel. There’s an interesting mix of creative people here like musicians, sculptors, film companies and designers, which gives it real energy,’ she says.

The space clearly lives up to the hype, its bar, screening room and ‘bean bags in the lounge’ offering that much-loved ‘cross-fertilisation’, as well as servicing the more practical needs of the small, creative business. Livingstone formally opens it this week, 12 months into its existence.

Commendable as it is that affordable and appropriate spaces are being supported, the acid test will be how much money the GLA and the LDA are prepared to invest.

The LDA will launch a venture capital fund imminently, for example, but its spokeswoman points out it’s not part of the creative industries initiative.

‘This is not designed specifically for creative businesses. Companies wishing to be considered for this funding will have to be introduced by an intermediary, like an accountant or a banker,’ she says. ‘They can’t just ring up with a great idea. They will have to demonstrate they have a robust business case.’

We’ll have to wait and see what the politicians come up with. Right now, it’s mostly promises. What isn’t helpful is to read things like: ‘In order to compete, companies need to invest. They need to invest in skills, particularly business skills and market skills. They need to research in research and development to get ahead of the game. They need to invest in technology.’

The creative industries are crying out for subsidies, inward investment and low-interest finance. Let’s hope the GLA delivers some real help before the downturn cuts any deeper.

The performance of the creative industries

• The creative industries create more wealth for London than any other major sector of industry except business services

• 525 000 people are employed by them

• Employment in the sector has increased by 5 per cent a year since 1995

• They contribute £21bn annually to London’s output

London’s Creative Clusters

• London’s primary creative cluster is in the West End, largely within the Borough of Westminster

• Secondary creative clusters exist in west London (Hammersmith, Fulham) and the City fringe (Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Hackney)

• A final grouping exists around Heathrow and along the corridor into London represented by Wandsworth, Richmond and Ealing

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