Post-Covid recovery through culture

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The cultural and night time economies provide a compelling route to economic recovery for town centres, but this approach is not without the risk of exacerbating inequalities. Working with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) culture team, CLES have been exploring an approach to developing sustainable business districts for creatives in Greater Manchester’s towns, that offer economic and social advantages to the people already living in those places.

As the UK’s towns and cities begin to move beyond the peaks of the Covid-19 crisis, discussions are turning towards the process for economic recovery and reform at the local level. The pre-pandemic trend towards lower occupancy rates of retail and leisure spaces evident in many places has intensified and local authorities are ever more receptive to ideas which have the ability to breathe life into high streets.

The cultural and night time economy will play a key role in the recovery plans of many places but this approach is not without its challenges – not least in ensuring that any prosperity generated is widely felt by the residents of the places the recovery plans will serve.

“develop a sustainable business core for creatives”

In what now feels like a simpler age, CLES began work back in 2019 with the Greater Manchester GMCA culture team to explore this challenge. Led by Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord, the team created a taskforce to develop a strategic approach to growing the night time and cultural sectors across Greater Manchester’s town centres, whilst mitigating the associated risks of such an approach. The resultant Creative Improvement Districts (CIDs) project will attempt to develop a sustainable business core for creatives in Greater Manchester’s towns, that offers economic and social advantages to the people already living in those places.

CLES was presented with something of a rarity in the world of think tanks – a “blank piece of paper” on which to explore an idea. Today GMCA releases the result of this thinking, which sketches out the “size of the prize” for CIDs, the potential risks and the approaches that are needed to address them.

Value and risk

The economic value generated by creative and night time businesses through increased visitor numbers and spend can create jobs and new businesses as well as encouraging local supply chains. Small, locally based businesses – which make up the bulk of the night time and cultural sectors – are more likely to use local employees and suppliers compared with larger firms, or those in manufacturing, tech and other high growth sectors attracted by traditional approaches to inward investment.

On the flip side, though, work in these sectors tends to be poorly paid, and there can often be a lack of diversity in their workforces. The sectors also face high rates of business failure, and their investment often does not “trickle down” to the local communities that need it most.

“a healthy local arts sector has been linked with increased educational outcomes”

The creative and night time sectors – the arts in particular – create social value by encouraging community cohesion, good health and life satisfaction. Those participating in these sectors develop skills, and a healthy local arts sector has been linked with increased educational outcomes for young people. The sectors can also encourage, inspire and break down barriers to the labour market. However, there is a risk that local people may feel alienated by a “silo-ed” arts scene, with an “us and them” culture emerging. Volunteering and apprenticeships can also become exploitative and restrict the diversity of new entrants to the sectors.

“rents can quickly become restrictive”

Place value can be generated by the creative and night time sectors, restoring property values in depressed town and city centres, providing a cornerstone to regeneration and revival. But rents can also quickly become restrictive to new creative entrants and property values may rise beyond the reach of existing tenants, forcing out long-established businesses. Mixing new uses, too, can cause tensions, for instance by introducing housing alongside night time businesses that do not serve (or may even run counter to) the interests of residents.

CIDs for balance

The CIDs project seeks to balance these opportunities and risks. As the project matures, GMCA will work with local authorities and creative communities to identify the assets and levers available to develop culture-led regeneration programmes, driven and supported by places and the people that live there.

“organise to ensure that the creative and night time sectors are rooted to the towns they serve”

Back to our “blank piece of paper”, CIDs, we propose, could offer entrepreneurs rent and rates relief; bespoke start-up and ongoing support to grow; and support to organise collective forms of governance to ensure that the wealth they generate is used to strengthen the creative and night time sectors in their place. In exchange, CIDs entrants would be required to provide meaningful employment, pay, conditions and workforce development to those local people who need it most; accountable forms of community engagement; and to organise to ensure that the creative and night time sectors are rooted to the towns they serve for generations to come. These early stage proposals are intended to be flexible yet powerful enough to create meaningful impact wherever in Greater Manchester they are implemented and we hope they will spark inspiration further afield.

The UK is internationally renowned for its cultural and night-time economy sectors. With the ashes of the Covid-19 health crisis starting to settle, for now at least, there has never been a more critical time to ensure creatives, artists and microbusinesses are given the best possible support to grow their businesses in a way that supports the economic and social health of all citizens.