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C4 disappointment must lead to focus on skills and local investment

C4 disappointment must lead to focus on skills and local investment

🕔02.Nov 2018

Channel 4’s decision to move to Leeds underlines the need for a long term commitment to creative industries development in the West Midlands, writes Andy Howell in the second part of a special feature. 

There’s no doubt that West Midlands’s creative industry sector has been disappointed — gutted even — by the decision of Channel 4 to relocate its headquarters to Leeds rather than to the West Midlands.

C4: a real case of Surprise, Surprise

Many hoped a decision to relocate Channel 4 would have been the shot in the arm that the sector needs to develop and grow more effectively.

However, none of us should really be surprised by the decision, for the fragility of the sector here in the West Midlands was spelt out in a report commissioned by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) and published in December 2017.

The report, ’The Creative Economy of Greater Birmingham’ produced by BOP Consulting (an international consultancy that specialises in cultural and creative economy) makes for sober reading.

The report found that rate of employment growth in the sector compared to comparative cities was significantly lower. The authors concluded that:

The potential of the cultural and creative sectors in Greater Birmingham & Solihull remains unfilled.

In Birmingham and Solihull the only sub-sector in which over 1% of businesses employ more than 50 people is crafts (which, as defined by DCMS, can be interpreted as the manufacture of jewellery).

Only 1% of businesses are in Film, Television, Video, Radio & Photography employ 10 or more people. No independent production company employs more than 50 people.

The average size of creative businesses (in terms of employees) reduced from 2010 to 2015. The authors felt that the small size of creative industries in Greater Birmingham “reflects potential instability and lack of resilience to further economic shocks within the sector”.

At the heart of the problem (here in the West Midlands) is a problem with the skill profile of the workforce. The report found that qualification levels within cultural and creative businesses in the West Midlands are typically lower than elsewhere in the UK.

The report is not one of doom and gloom. The authors felt that — regardless of the Channel 4 location — significant potential exists within a region, not least the advantage of a young and diverse talent pool “capable of understanding the differing needs of international markets”.

However, the challenge to harness this potential is a large one. If the sector remains worryingly fragile across Birmingham and Solihull, then the picture looks even bleaker across the wider region.

It may be that the BOP report pulled in punches. The report highlights the size of the Birmingham’s cultural sector — the largest cluster of major arts organisations in any English core city outside London – as a major benefit to the wider creative industries. Yet, this sector continues to experience severe year on year budget cuts as local government struggles to fund core services such as social care.

The fragility of the existing sector in the region and the low skill base of its employees were all factors in the decision of Channel 4 not to move to Birmingham. The Files understands that those working on the Birmingham bid were in no doubt that cuts to the commitment to the arts and wider creative industries sector made the city and region a less attractive option for relocation.

Given the fragility and lack of resilience in the sector it now seems unreasonable to expect that we can attract one large catalyst or investment that itself will kick start a higher rate of growth.

Growth will depend on a long term programme of development which has the tackling of the skills deficit at its heart. Such a strategy is hampered, though, by the financial challenges faced by the region’s local authorities to meet basic services and which limits their ability to invest in new strategies.

But does this matter? Are the creative industries that important to our future?

Well, bluntly yes. Our economy faces the continuing challenge of diversification. Manufacturing remains crucial to us but with every year it loses a little of its significance in terms of employment numbers.

The motor industry is increasingly reliant on the skills of the creative sector as it is on advanced manufacturing. In Birmingham the financial sector is the big success story of recent years, but the profits generated here do not make the same contribution to the local economy than did the major employment industries of the past.

Across the region today there is much talk of ’Inclusive Growth’, the need to ensure that the majority of citizens benefit from economic development. There are clearly real limits to the impact the dynamic growth in Birmingham’s financial services has across the wider community of the city and the region. In the next few months we are likely to hear more about the failing impact of existing economic development policies on the wellbeing of the wider community.

Those who are bitterly disappointed in the Channel 4 decision are rightly frustrated because they see the growing importance of this sector while also appreciating the potential of our young and diverse population.

The challenge to the region — to its council leaders, to the Mayor and to business leaders — is to stay focussed on the long term challenges and solutions highlighted in the BOP report.

Critically, the region needs to maintain a long term focus on closing the skills gap with our competitor cities. We have had much success over recent years in securing record levels of inward investment, but as much attention and energy needs to spent looking at local issues at home as is spent on securing international investment.

For many in the West Midlands, prosperity will depend on generating greater internal growth and here the creative industries have a major role to play.

Andy Howell is Chair of Creative Alliance, the skills development company for the creative industries.

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