My call for universal basic culture

By Oliver Goodhall | 18 December 2023

The recent announcement that one in five jobs in London are in the creative economy is significant. It’s a powerful reminder of why culture and creativity are critical to cities and why they thrive. We know that too through our work in other cities such as Wolverhampton, Milton Keynes and Brighton. This is not just through the enjoyment culture and creativity can bring, but also their hard-nosed economic impact. And it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

Our Creative Supply Chains Study, commissioned and published on behalf of the Mayor of London in 2018, accounted for the creative industries in London spending an estimated £40bn within their supply chains, with about 50% of that falling outside the creative industries. So in London, for every job within the creative industries there are an additional 0.75 jobs supported in the wider economy through creative supply chains.

The creative industries are supported by a truly varied range of businesses and sectors, and there are also many types of skilled jobs provided within creative supply chains. Think about the flame-retardant textile manufacturer making specialist fabrics for screen and stage, or the transport and logistics company handling items for a visiting exhibition at the V&A museum.

Some creative sub-sectors support an especially large amount of supply chain employment. For instance, for every job within the publishing sector in London, a further 0.87 jobs are supported in the supply chain. In this case, factoring in the supply chain nearly doubles the employment impact of the sector.

Cities and their cultural institutions are powerhouses in creating wider economic impact. The same study demonstrated how the National Theatre generated £43m a year in gross value added along its supply chain. It’s also important to remember that supply chains can have a wide geographic spread benefiting areas far beyond London – for example Yorkshire and the Humber were the other top areas of concentration of the wider economic impact of National Theatre.

OK, let’s go I hear you say! A National Theatre everywhere.

It’s not such a silly idea. Labour’s post-war conviction that good things should be available for everyone led to the founding not only of the Arts Council, but also the NHS. Universal basic healthcare; a good idea, right?

Today as Labour and their shadow culture secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, seek to define and articulate a new purpose, what about universal basic culture?

I can see a new era of cities thriving with agency to imagine and create the conditions in which more inclusive, diverse, devolved, responsive, and self-driving culture emerges – regardless of income. The UK can be a global creative powerhouse. We know the way in which the economic arguments stack up for the creative industries. But we shouldn’t be trapped into setting out an exclusively economic argument. We need a vision and purpose, as well as a mandate from the wider public for thinking big! Universal basic culture can be the key to unlocking prosperity, health and community participation.

So what should local authorities do? Framed by a recent roundtable discussion we hosted in Manchester on opportunities, challenges and best practice of embedding culture in our cities, here’s my top three:

  1. Collaborate rather than compete: Work with neighbouring local authorities and cities to join up thinking, build coalitions and define district roles in creative corridors that function across local authority boundaries.
  2. Anchor local actions to society’s bigger missions: Respond to local need so that universal basic culture contributes to community wealth building, inclusion, net-zero environmental targets and health outcomes.
  3. Lobby for a national cultural infrastructure plan to outlast political cycles: Prove how UK’s cities can drive long-term sustainable change with the right infrastructure, skills and support in place.

With future national funding already pointing towards supporting the cultural and creative sectors, we need to see this continue into tangible and transformative actions now that the case has been strongly made.

Oliver Goodhall is co-founding partner, We Made That


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