Small engines of growth: New research finds over 700 small communities of creative businesses across the UK
By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Friday, 20 November 2020
While creative business communities are typically thought to exist only in the UK’s bustling urban centres, such as London or Manchester, new research led by Dr Josh Siepel from the University of Sussex Business School has found 709 different ‘microclusters’ across the UK.
These micro creative clusters (areas with at least 50 creative organisations) can be found within the larger cities – like Shoreditch in London, the North Laine in Brighton, and the Northern Quarter in Manchester – but have also been found in less well known creative hotspots like Colwyn Bay in North Wales and Buxton in England.
Previous research by Nesta in 2016 found 47 creative clusters in large cities, such as the film and television sectors in Cardiff and Bristol. These 47 large and well-established clusters have very high numbers of creative businesses ranging from visual arts to animation and marketing.
Today’s new research, by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC), goes further, identifying 709 micro creative clusters. While some are found within the UK’s big cities, a third are outside of them, with many in remote or rural areas that are not typically associated as creative or cultural places. For example, a local creative ecosystem has been built at Creative Folkestone in Kent, academia sits alongside production and visual arts industries in Plymouth, and 65 creative businesses are found in the Shetland Islands.
Creative clusters are important engines of growth as groups of businesses in a particular industry benefit from being near to each other, for instance the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent. Creative clusters have been the engines of the growth of the UK’s creative industries, which now contribute over £100 billion to the UK economy. But with the sector particularly affected by Covid-19, creative clusters will be important as the UK economy seeks to recover.
The PEC’s researchers, from the University of Sussex Business School, used data scraped from the websites of 200,000 creative businesses to identify 709 distinct micro creative clusters in the UK. They then surveyed 1,000 of these businesses to find out how they operate, the challenges they face, and how they differ from larger creative clusters at a city level, such as in Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester.
The creative businesses that were in the microclusters (but outside of the larger, well known creative areas) were more likely to want to grow and more likely to have grown in the past year. These businesses behaved like those within the larger creative clusters, but they view access to external finance as a barrier to their growth, especially for those outside of London and the South East.
Dr Josh Siepel, from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and Senior Lecturer in Management at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “Our research shows that the creative industries aren't only the preserve of our large cities – that there is also huge opportunity in small creative business communities situated in towns and villages across the UK. Companies in these micro creative clusters wanted to grow, but the disruption of Covid and the uncertainty of Brexit put them at enormous risk.
"These small clusters represent a real opportunity for building economic resilience across the UK, and need to be supported as the government seeks to ‘level up’ the UK’s regions. One way the government can address this is to address the issues that companies in microclusters face in accessing finance by extending the Creative Scale-Up Scheme in the upcoming Spending Review.
“Our research shows a huge number of small but fragile creative clusters around the UK. Failing to support these clusters could set back these places by another decade and erase the opportunity to address the UK’s longstanding regional inequalities in creative industries.”