London – a deliberate disaster

Guest post from Tom Campbell.  

It is more than seven years since Kate Oakley and John Knell were commissioned by Creative London at the London Development Agency to write a report on the capital’s creative industries, based on roundtable discussions hosted by the Work Foundation. Entitled London’s Creative Economy: An Accidental Success and published at a time when public agencies seemed to be constantly launching strategies, visions and mapping studies, this thoughtful, sober, unheralded report received less attention than most. But, as is the way with these things, it now stands out as one of the few documents from the period worth returning to.

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Accidental Success was written at a time when it was hard to ignore the spectacle of London’s creative industries. Frieze Art Fair (supported by Creative London during its incubation) was three years old, Shoreditch’s digital media businesses were gaining prominence, private sponsorship of the arts was at record levels, creative employment was growing, and there were a plethora of national and regional agencies, from the UK Film Council to the London Development Agency, who were investing to support not just the industries themselves, but also those that were trying to enter them.

The report certainly didn’t ignore London’s achievements. But crucially, it did much more than simply document and celebrate them. While acknowledging the creative economy’s size, growth and dynamism, it also analysed the particular circumstances that had enabled it, and in so doing drew attention to its contingency, its fragility and its precarious nature. From a shortage of affordable workspace through to low levels of workforce diversity, exploitative working conditions, and under-investment in skills and training, the report identified a range of issues that policy makers should be worried about. For, as the titled of the report implied, there was nothing inevitable about London’s success. The glamour and excitement which seemed to have revitalized the capital’s post-industrial economy, could disappear just as quickly as it had emerged.

Fast-forward seven years, and the report is now striking not just for the quality of its analysis but for its prescience, as every week news stories, from the satirical to the faintly apocalyptic, bear witness to London’s decline as a creative city. For a number of reasons, from the European financial crisis to the economic expansion of China, London’s economic trajectory has accelerated, and its role as the clearing house for global capital more firmly entrenched. There are more Russians buying London properties, more Chinese banks setting up headquarters, more Middle East sovereigns buying up infrastructure. Ten years ago, there were concerns that teachers and nurses were struggling to live in the capital. Today, the more frequently heard complaint is that ‘no normal people’ can afford to, in both the public and private sectors. This includes, of course, the creative industries, where it is not only writers and artists being priced out of East London but designers, architects, publishers, television producers, advertisers and software programmers. The delicate fabric that enabled London’s creative success – its mixture of cheap workspace, good universities, young talent and small businesses – is being ripped apart.

Of course, London was attracting considerable inward investment ten years ago. But crucially there were policy makers and government agencies who understood that while such forces shouldn’t necessarily be resisted, they did need to be ameliorated. Through skills and training, the provision of workspace, access and employment programmes and initiatives to promote new talent, there was public investment in not just growing the creative industries, but doing so for the benefit of all Londoners. Much of this has now gone – the LDA was shut down in 2012, regeneration funds have been slashed, European programmes reduced and local authority spending on culture and business support minimal. As Accidental Success argued, the tensions between the city’s creative and commercial imperatives were acute, but they could be still be managed. Domestic economies, including the creative industries, could exist, and possibly even thrive, in world cities.

For all of London’s difficulties and fault lines, this is still the case. For perhaps the most important lesson from Accidental Success is that governments and city leaders can make choices. Rather than wringing our hands as property prices soars, as student debt rises, as inequalities increase and businesses fail, we should be asking questions and considering alternatives. We don’t have to charge every student £9000 a year to study English Literature. We can build more affordable housing. We can tax the stupendously wealthy and support new talent. We can enforce employment rights, make sure that interns are paid, impose planning laws that favour independent retailers and small businesses. If we don’t do any of these things and much more besides, then the disaster that is 21st century London will be no accident. It will be our creation.

 

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3 thoughts on “London – a deliberate disaster

  1. Thoughtful and intriguing piece. The present government will, of course, pay no attention to it. But no government lasts for ever.

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