What now for the creative industries in the north of England? Lynda Relph-Knight reports from North: The Great Debate

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor and the former long-serving editor of Design Week. Follow Lynda on Twitter.

The Great Debate panel, photographed by Sebastian Matthes

So what is to be done about the north of England? The age-old question was revisited this week as local politicians, educationalists and creative industry activists convened in Manchester on Wednesday evening for North: The Great Debate.

Is the region to remain the poor relation of London? Or do the myriad of creative initiatives, what locals see as potential for a better lifestyle and the excellence of its design colleges merit greater recognition by both public and private sector investors?

We’ve been there before as northern cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester vie for attention on the national stage. Now though they are rallying behind the creative industries, claiming potential for significant growth in the region, particularly in Manchester if certain criteria are met. And for once they are not looking to take on London as the UK’s creative centre, but to add other elements to the capital’s international status and bolster Britain’s claim to global creative dominance.

This was the consensus of a panel comprising Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, Caroline Norbury, chief executive of Creative England, Lou Cordwell, founder of Manchester agency Magnetic North, and professor David Crow, dean and pro-vice chancellor of Manchester School of Art where the debate was staged.

So what will make it happen? Cash and increased connectivity were top of the list for the panel, chaired by Observer assistant editor Robert Yates. Both are embodied in the £2m investment in the TechNorth initiative announced on Monday by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to echo East London’s Tech City on the former Olympic park. But Wednesday’s audience viewed this as a cynical pre-general election sop, given the extent of the region to be covered in the plan. Cordwell sees this though as part of a "window of opportunity" for the north. "And while there’s a window let’s make the most of it and drive through it," she said.

Norbury called for "a more transparent, equitable sharing of power and money" across the country. And she doesn’t just mean by Whitehall. She is keen to see regional and local banks unlocking capital that will attract private sector investors. "Where the money lives is very important," she said. But even if the cash is there, a lot of investors don’t understand the creative industries’ business models, so that knowledge gap needs to be addressed.

From a public sector perspective, Leese, who oversaw the 10-year regeneration of Manchester following the 1996 IRA bomb, says "fiscal devolution" is in hand there. The city council has, he said, been amassing cash for reinvestment by replacing grants with loans or equity investment in new ventures.

As for transport, Leese is backing better transport links between northern cities to draw the region together and aid collaboration. A comprehensive transport system would also create a critical mass of creative talent, thereby boosting local job opportunities for creatives and encouraging them to stay in the region.

All agreed that the region – and Manchester in particular – is held back by a lack of identity. "It comes down to brand," said Cordwell, who with other local activists is "60-70 per cent there" in coming up with a narrative for Manchester. "We’ve got a lot of substance. We’re just crap at the hype." But recent visits by Brazilian, Danish and Russian delegations to the city suggest that isn’t strictly true. Crow said Brazil, for example, is keen to send a posse of artists to Manchester as "[their presence] might get lost in the noise of London".

As with all UK regions, the north has a severe skills shortage, particularly in coding and digital creativity where it is hard to keep up with the pace of change. The north has the extra difficulty though in keeping its creative graduates, even though the costs of setting up a business are infinitely lower than they are in London, where many of them migrate.

The same debate continues across northern cities, and, indeed, in other British regions as devolution is seen as an increasingly viable option. Design Council chief executive John Mathers spoke of exercises in Bristol and Bath next week and planned for the spring in the north east to bolster their creative strengths. He made a telling point though that in his experience overseas visitors see Britain as a whole as a creative powerhouse, not just London.

That being the case, Manchester and its neighbours are right to move on from the north/south argument. If they can hang on to more of the creative talent they nurture through education and create design and digital jobs by attracting investment, the initiatives they are actively pursuing will build a strong economic future for them and the country.

Norbury sees the strength of the north as "being able to create something from nothing", In the case of the creative industries, quite a few of the building blocks are already there.

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor. You can follow her on Twitter @RelphKnight

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