Bristol, Brexit and the creative challenge

Bristol’s creative industries give the city a strong starting point for taking the city global post-Brexit. But it will need support to succeed.

Graffiti on wall of person with a flower

Street art in Southville Bristol. Heather Cowper/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

Brexit is framed as both a threat and an opportunity – the loss of the EU market and the free flow of talent against the chance to work across the whole world. The creative industries already work globally – our music, films, TV, design and digital products and services are renowned. We also benefit from the free flow of talent – up to 50% EU citizens in sectors like visual effects – and investment from European cultural programmes. And, of course, Europe is a huge market and English remains the key language of the industry.

Combined with the devolution of powers within the UK, this has created a matrix of changes which all reinforce one thing – we’re heading for “the City and the World”. As a biologist with 30 years experience in factual TV, this resonates with basic ecology, which I believe provides the philosophy to deal with complexity and develop the right response to the coming change.

Creativity is a very human industry, in production and consumption. The energy within the ecosystem comes from individuals with talent, and there are skills shortages. We need to be able to draw on a wide range of talent, and ensure the Tier 2 visa arrangement aligns to needs – currently they are too restrictive in the definition of ability and salary level required. The industry exists predominantly as a collection of microbusinesses, and we do not have the capacity to sponsor individuals in visa applications.

We can grow our own talent, but to date this has not been done well. Students and advisors lack awareness of the careers available within the industry, there are limited opportunities for work experience, an over-reliance on unpaid internships, and limited potential for further education and higher education to deliver ‘match-fit’ people into production teams. Creative businesses are very dynamic learning entities in their own right, but we can’t stop production to teach unless there is a clear benefit.

Developing pathways for aspiring creatives

This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of low inclusion and uneven opportunity which will require external energy to break. In Bristol, there is a drive to improve the pathways by recognising the limitation within the companies and brokering clearer individual connections. A model called “Creative Learning” – i.e. learning for both the company and the individual – has arisen from roundtable sessions within the Local Enterprise Partnership’s Creative Sector group, and is being developed through the Skills West programme. Ironically, this is funded from the Local Enterprise Partnership’s allocation of the European Structural Fund, and will be the last use of EU funding.

Given the limited flow of people through the formal education system into the creative industries, extra-curricular opportunities are key. A report by the University of the West of England has established the importance of “sector-connectors” such as Watershed, Knowle West Media Centre, and Ujima. These provide the opportunity for talented people to develop in their communities, and form their individual pathways. The industry is mainly freelance so resilience and constant learning are vital even at an early stage. But these entities are subject to public funding, in which EU programmes such as MEDIA and Creative Europe have played a role.

Last year Bristol began to develop a Regional Arts Incubator Network with support from the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership and Arts Council England. The express purpose is to develop creative individuals and microbusinesses, as well as the business focus of cultural hubs. For the city to talk to the world requires a recognition of the inter-relationships within the creative ecology, where the energy – money and talent – comes from and develops, and how the experience within the city is the same as that projected to the world.

Unfortunately our data on the creative industries is not nuanced enough to show impacts at regional and city level – we don’t know how the ecology worked in the past, and thus do not know how much needs to adapt for the future. This will be particularly important moving forward as few companies – because of EU membership – have experience “exporting”, and are thus at a disadvantage in comparison to companies in EU member states. Even national data lacks the segmentation to show how we have traded with the EU, and what we lose with Brexit. Defining the economic impact of Brexit requires impartiality and granularity – at best, it seems multinationals are more likely to thrive than companies trading in the UK internal market.

Selling Bristol to the world

So, how can the Bristol city-region be promoted as a global city in the UK and beyond?

We have a branding mess. Do we talk about Bristol as the only ‘Core City’ that is a net contributor to the UK economy? Do we ask people to “Invest in Bristol+Bath”, when no one lives in “Bristol+Bath”? Would anyone assume that the “west of England” includes Taunton or Gloucester, when they are outside our regional boundary?

The best promotion is word of mouth, yet years of public sector wrangling have left us without a set of words that describes the region. I believe the region should be Greater Bristol. Bristol is on the map, the largest entity, the best place to live in the UK (according to the Sunday Times), and we stand alongside Greater London and Greater Manchester, certainly within my sector.

Once we have a name, we need values and a spokesperson. Bristol City Council have produced ‘brand values’ for the city – Pioneering, Unorthodox, Resilient, Liveable. There is a strong federation of people promoting the brand and city values to their respective audiences, and we need consistency in the messaging. In Marvin Rees, Bristol has its figurehead. He is a key member of the Global Parliament of Mayors, with ambitions for the city that can be facilitated and led by Tim Bowles as Metro Mayor.

Brexit means a layer of support drops away and industries that have been used to ease of movement of talent and ease of trade within the EU simply have to “go global”.

Our discussion at #BristolBrexit, “Projecting Bristol and Britain to a Post-Brexit World”, produced a set of steps that define the global profile, and check its consistency.

• Promotion of the place needs to locate it to enable “word of mouth” as the best marketing. So… it’s Greater Bristol.

• The brand values of Pioneering : Unorthodox : Resilient : Liveable become our statement for the whole region.

• We test the values and talk about our issues openly – house prices, learning, opportunity, movement (congestion, public transport and also the porosity of institutions). We engage the issues of residents who are “not at the party”, students under pressure, young families struggling to pay rent, and do a gap analysis of the statements.

• We articulate and adapt the values and this drives inclusion policies – the devolution of powers and city sovereignty provides the autonomy for effective action.

• Strong values shape what we must do, and what we won’t do. We may reject the rhetoric of a “Western powerhouse”. Although it’s close, and of similar scale, Cardiff has been placed in a different country. The ecology will grow naturally, as it has with the Great Western Alliance of universities, and the potential linkage of our centre of excellence in factual TV with Cardiff’s for TV drama.

• We take our brand values global, with support from the UK government in driving exports, trade fairs, international production. We gain strength from the 91 languages spoken here, from theatre tours by Bristol Old Vic, from academic conferences and the flow of young people across the world as students. We are all ambassadors. Historically, we have traded internationally, and our set of seven twin cities is a great starting point.

• We maintain authenticity as the test/driver for change – adapting the brand values as the ecology changes, either through development within the region, or an external factor. Brexit provides the first test.

The university can be the honest broker of this, provided it works collaboratively with communities in its declared ‘civic university’ role.

#BristolBrexit – A City Responds to Brexit
#BristolBrexit – A City Responds to Brexit is a free public event at @Bristol on the 23rd of May from 10.00-13.00. The event, organised by the University of Bristol in collaboration with the University of the West of England and the University of Bath brings together stakeholders, practitioners, activists, educators, business people, city officials, religious leaders, and charity representatives to collectively and collaboratively address the challenges of uncertainty brought about by Bristol. The event will feature a series of interactive formats to bring representatives from across the city together to develop new and innovative strategies for taking Bristol into the future.
All are invited: register here.

About the author

Paul Appleby is a media consultant based in Bristol, a Director of Bristol Media and Chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership Creative Sector group. He is on advisory boards for Watershed, Encounters International Film Festival, the Centre for Digital Entertainment and the Creative Industries Federation.

This article has been written by a participant in the #BristolBrexit – a city responds to Brexit initiative. The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the University of Bristol or the funders of the organisers’ research.

This article was first published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.