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The Creative Industries Clusters (CIC) programme is "exactly the right thing to be doing," says Lord Finsbury

The Creative Industries Clusters (CIC) programme is the right way to boost the sector, according to Lord Finsbury, the man who led the 1998 Government taskforce that first identified the economic value of the creative industries.

“I do very warmly welcome what the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is doing on creative clusters and it is absolutely the right approach,” he says.

“Creative businesses like to be together – and this is where the AHRC's work is very important.”

Twenty years ago Christopher Smith, Baron Smith of Finsbury, was Minister at the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and led its Creative Industries Mapping Study – the first attempt to formally identify the size and significance of the creative industries in the UK.

“When I was made Secretary of State for DCMS, one of the things that I felt had to be true, but I couldn't prove, was that the broad spread of economic activity that we now call the creative industries was really significant for the national economy,” Baron Smith of Finsbury told the AHRC.

“In fact, no one really knew what its contribution was. Feeling this in my bones wasn't good enough. I needed to find out the reality and that led to the setting up of the Creative Industries Task Force and the first of the two mapping documents we later did in 1999 and 2001, which put the creative industries on the government's radar.”

The idea was to bring representatives from different government departments – across the board from education, the Treasury, regional development etc. – and get them around the table with representatives from the creative industry – people like Paul Smith, Alan McGee and David Puttnam.

“It was absolutely fascinating seeing how the dynamics of the meetings worked. All the ministers came with briefing notes that had been prepared by their civil servants, and they sat down and opened their folders and started reading out what was on the page in front of them.

“Meanwhile, the people from the creative sector were just pitching in saying, 'this is what it's like' and 'these are the problems'. And after a while you could see the ministers starting to put their folders away and starting to engage in a real conversation.”

The taskforce had two objectives: the first was the mapping exercise to establish in rough terms what the size and scale of the creative sector was; the second was to try and work out what were the obstacles and challenges to its growth - and how could government help overcome them?

“What we found was completely astonishing, as the sector was far bigger and more significant than we could have ever imagined,” says Baron Smith.

The difficulties identified were fourfold: number one was education and the need to ensure that the whole education system encouraged creative thought; number two was access to finance for creative start ups; number three was access to workshop and studio accommodation, especially in those areas where creative industries are beginning to cluster and feed of each other. Number four was the protection of intellectual property and making sure that, in a digital age, the value of a piece of creative work comes back to the creator.

“I think these are still the main challenges,” says Baron Smith. “For example, the problem with education is that it hasn't changed. The sector seems to be stubbornly resistant to doing anything about this. STEM is important, of course. But we need to be getting into a mindset of STEM +

“One of the things that we found in those early years was that there were some parts of central government that were really resistant to recognising the value of the creative sector – the Treasury especially took years to shift its mindset.

“The bit of government infrastructure that really responded well and immediately were the regional development agencies. They were very enthusiastic and really understood the fact that creative business like to work rather differently to traditional manufacturing businesses, who on the whole want to be apart from one another.”

According to Baron Smith encouraging the development of creative clusters has the potential to help address many of the challenges facing the sector.

“If you have a sense in an area that creativity is a really important part of that area, that will feed into what the schools, colleges and universities are doing, as well as funding to a certain extent; there is a synergetic effect,” says Baron Smith.

And addressing these problems is important because, while the creative sector remains in rude health - and outperforms many other areas of the economy - nothing can be taken for granted, and there is still work to do.

“I can see two dangers,” says Baron Smith. “The first is not getting the education bit right, the second is competition from abroad. The rest of the world is waking up to the importance of all this. Country after country is doing the same mapping that we did 20 years ago, and so resting on our laurels is not an option.

“I would like subjects like music, drama, creative drawing and software design not just seen as nice add ons that are left to after-hours volunteer teaching, but a fundamental part of what was on offer in the school day.”

Reflecting on the last 20 years Baron Smith believes that government input has helped the creative sector “a bit, but not enough”.

“Local government and regional government have contributed significantly but central government took a long time to wake up. They do now get it; they say the right things. But in terms of actual policies, while they haven't done any harm, they haven't done much good yet either, which is why what the AHRC is doing is really significant.”

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