Cultural industries can do more for cities

January 03, 2001

Britain's second cities could boost regeneration if their political and business leaders made the new cultural industries more central to policy, says a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

These cultural industries, such as businesses in fashion, design, new media and music, could help breathe new life into city centres.

The report shows that the cultural industries have been major players in the rejuvenation of the housing market and in economic renewal within the city centre and fringe districts of Manchester - particularly in the Northern Quarter, 'Gay Village'/Whitworth Street, Castlefield and the University districts. They account for about six per cent of total employment in the Greater Manchester area, which is three times estimates made in 1995.

But the sector remains marginalised in the city's mainstream economic development strategies. This contrast sharply to the way that this sector was incorporated into the central regeneration strategy which re-launched Barcelona as a highly competitive city in the 1990s.

Dr Justin O'Connor, from the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture, based at Manchester Metropolitan University, has highlighted the fragility of these mostly new

and small firms. He comments that while Manchester has ambitions to develop as a regional, European and even global city, it is not focused on the contribution that the cultural industries could make to regeneration and to giving the city a new image. They are still seen more as an 'add on', in contrast to the high profile of the construction industry in the city - although each employs about the same number of people.

The findings are based on in-depth interviews with 55 respondents from the 'innovative milieu' of entrepreneurs, managers and cultural intermediaries who are the key brokers, event planners, organisers and fixers in the cultural economy, night-time entertainment (music, clubs, bars), new media, fashion and design industries. A further 10 interviews were conducted with local policymakers, while 10 more were conducted with other relevant bodies, such as enterprise agencies, arts groups and property developers.

The interviews revealed a highly flexible, innovative and competitive way of working within a sector which relies extensively on support from the peer group and social networks across a tight geographic cluster of small firms. This sort of support was partly filling the gap left by the banks and mainstream business support agencies. They were often found to be both out of tune with the needs and patterns of work displayed by the new industries and critical of their working methods. Banks and other institutions sometimes described the sector as 'flaky' or 'unprofessional'.

Within the city, meanwhile, the idea that culture is a key urban asset rather than simply a means of boosting tourism does not hold much sway. For most council leaders, any emphasis on culture concentrated on building upon the concert hall and exhibition centre approach - the cherry on the cake rather than the cake itself.

However, a small but influential group of independent urban property developers is emerging to challenge this view, although they themselves could be threatened by the growing interest of the big property companies in those very parts of the city in which the new cultural firms are located. The message that the research holds for other cities,

says Dr O'Connor, is that they all need to view culture in a broader context rather than primarily as a creator of jobs - cultural industries, cultural policy and economic development could be more closely linked.

More than 50 local authorities across Britain have enthusiastically endorsed the practice of nurturing clusters of creative firms, but with mixed results. This is partly because they do not understand the character and size of those firms active within these areas. Britain's cities, says Dr O'Connor, lack any coherent vision or means to move ideas beyond 'fragmented and opportunist levels', which will be 'a serious barrier to any ambitions to foster more creative and competitive cities'.
For further information, contact Dr Justin O'Connor at Manchester Metropolitan University. Tel: 0161-247-3443. Email: Or, Dr Mark Banks. Tel: 0161-247-6588. Email:

  1. For further information about the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture, based at Manchester Metropolitan University, visit Manchester Institute for Popular Culture is a multi-disciplinary research unit concerned with issues in contemporary city cultures: cultural production and consumption; identity and lifestyle; urban regeneration; popular music; the 'creative' city; urban governance; football and football fandom; gender and cultural production; social exclusion and urban conflict; globalisation and new technologies.

  2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and government. The ESRC invests around £46 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is

  3. REGARD is the ESRC's bibliographic database accessible via the World Wide Web. It is a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards. The website can be found at

Economic & Social Research Council

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