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Local Govt

Tees Valley Combined Authority

This is an edited transcript of comments from an online Creative Industries Council Place Forum event on June 6 2024. Read more about the Forum.

Charlie Kemp, Tees Valley Combined Authority 

I am Head of Creative Place at the Tees Valley Combined Authority which is a partnership between our five constituent local authorities with urban centres, rural areas, and some quite isolated areas within the mix as well. Our role is to work strategically across the region and the area of work that I lead is focused on building the creative economy and creating opportunity and enterprise. 

From the Combined Authority’s inception, Culture and Tourism was identified as a key pillar in the journey towards economic regeneration. In 2021, our cabinet approved our £20m growth programme for the creative and visitor economies, funded partly through our devolved budget and partly through the UK SPF (UK Shared Prosperity Fund).

We are now on a mission to make Tees Valley an engine room of creative production. We want this to be a fantastic place for creative professionals to choose to base themselves because of the support and the environment that we can offer them. This has been reflected spatially in our Mayoral Development Corporations, which we have established in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, where the role of the creative industries is one of the key aspects in regenerating town centres, as well as through our emerging investments zone which prioritise digital and creative.

Today, I want to share some of the work we have been doing through our growth programme and some key learnings.

This has not necessarily been a linear journey. When working in a Combined Authority, where you have a range of political leaders influencing the debate at different times, there is a real need to establish a strong foundation from which everybody can build.

We quickly realised the language used around the creative industries could be alienating to those unfamiliar with the sector, and so we worked hard to establish a shared language that aligned with the objectives of the Combined Authority and where our stakeholders would be comfortable with the idea of business support, inward investment, business growth, and skills. This has become the starting point for our piece of work.

Within the first months of the pandemic, we saw the horrendous impact that the closure of the cultural and creative sector was having on our local businesses, let alone the national landscape. We established an independent sector task force to advise us on the design and delivery of a £1m recovery programme specific to that sector. That process helped build confidence and visibility for the sector and we kept this group close as we moved past the pandemic.

Now we have a Creative Place advisory group which brings together representatives from a range of creative sub-sectors to help shape our thinking, provide the essential nuance on our proposed interventions, and ensure they land well with the local sector. We have also made sure that we have a strong evidence base to build our programme on. 

We wanted to understand the characteristics of Tees Valley’s creative industries to demonstrate why our intervention was needed and what form it should take. Tees Valley is in the North East of England and we share that geography with seven other local authority areas and two combined authorities. Historically, the available data has been at the North East level, which encompassed more established creative destinations such as Newcastle.This meant that it was quite challenging to understand the nuances of areas like Hartlepool, for example.

Our baseline work unearthed some interesting insights that we used to engage partners. For example, telling the story of the freelance nature of the creative workforce is more powerful when you can say there are just under 4,000 people employed based on ONS data. But we also adopted a methodology that included data from LinkedIn profiles which showed that our creative workforce was more like 13,000 people.

Whilst those operating within the sector may not necessarily see themselves as micro businesses, the data also emphasised this nature and for some stakeholders, it was important to position the sector in this more familiar way. Through the baseline study, we were also able to demonstrate that the creative industries sector contributes a total of £376m in annual turnover within Tees Valley, but 98% of our sector's businesses have a yearly turnover of less than £1m.

All of this helped put into context the role that the cultural industries could play in achieving the Combined Authority’s goal of driving economic regeneration, but we were also conscious of the need to carve out a space for ourselves that was distinct from our partners at Arts Council England and other local authorities.

We set about identifying the key components for building a high performing creative cluster, using examples of best practice from elsewhere. Our model encapsulated the different components essential in creative cluster developments and the importance of their connectivity, both physically and digitally.

We then looked at the tools the combined authority had at its disposal, to consider how we could plug into this model and drive sector development and sustainability. Infrastructure, skills, education, and business support are the key tools we work with.

We then assessed this against the baseline data and identified that we were at a pre-formation stage of cluster development. We had some of the right components in place, but things essentially were not working together in the most effective way. There were some gaps in our offer and connectivity, but we also had the emergence of clustering behaviours and some strong sub-sectors that could deliver quick wins, if we were able to ensure they had the necessary underpinnings. Then we would be able to turn our attention to some of the less developed areas.

Our business case was built on this model, that in the lifetime of the programme our ambition would shift from a pre-formation embryonic stage to a creation stage where critical mass helps embed capacity and grow the sector. The priority sectors identified were screen, music festivals, and visual arts, but that has not stopped us from looking at how we create the conditions for other elements of the sector to grow.

 In terms of how we approached our growth programme, at an early stage, we understood the benefits of financial investment and wraparound support. We found we were having a similar conversation with the same businesses year on year and that their aspirations were growing, but in reality the context in which they were working was not shifting.

The Combined Authority needed to be a change making organisation and our investment should enable that sustained step change. An early example of intervention and partnership working was supporting several leading organisations to make credible ACE NPO (Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation) applications.

We brought all our existing and aspiring NPOs together and we looked at the opportunities for developing a shared narrative around Tees Valley’s journey, as well as listening to the barriers they were facing in submitting those applications, such as capacity. We were then able to offer new NPOs a £10,000 grant to backfill their time and to pay for external resource to develop an application. As a result, we saw a 66% uplift in NPO investment in the region with three new NPOs and more cohesion between organisations.

Another example is our festival scale up programme.Year after year, our festivals were applying for grant funding from a range of sources to make their model work. The Combined Authority, working as a change making organisation, developed a programme where we identified nine festivals that had regional distinctiveness and scale up potential, but still faced clear barriers to growth.

We were able to make multi-year investment commitments enabling a level of security and further supported by bespoke business support, critical friend mentoring, training, and skills development which would respond to their particular needs. Our investment would taper with their development.

The final example concerned the under-representation of the screen sectors in Tees Valley and the wider North East. We responded to the BBC' national intention to move production outside of London through its ‘Across the UK Strategy’ and got in touch at a very early stage to make the case for the North East, teaming up with the 12 local authorities represented by the area’s combined authorities to broker a partnership.

Together, we secured a £25m commitment from the BBC into regional skills development and production, matched with our collective £11.4m investment. Our investment is focused on doubling down on the opportunity created by the BBC partnership and therefore, we have upskilled and extended the capacity of the regional screen agency (North EastScreen) which is now able to deliver bespoke business support, traineeships, and skills development programmes. It also manages our £3.8m Production Fund, which currently delivers a seven-to-one return on investment.

My key takeaways are that the role of a Combined Authority in creative industries sector growth is to be that change maker which then complements the work of other key stakeholders. Then, with the investment secured, it should develop programmes and interventions which reflect the nuances of local businesses.



1. How do you garner political support for the creative industries sector in areas that have not yet prioritised it?

I am fortunate that Tees Valley had a long-standing commitment to creating cultural opportunity for residents. Whilst the value of cultural activity for creating a sense of place and creating opportunities for residents has been understood, the approach may not have been driven by the sector in its own right. It was not necessarily something that everybody was on the same page on when we started to craft the programme.

On one hand, you are starting from a positive position that people value the sector but, on the other, there is work to be done in understanding how you get the desired output and how you create an environment that stimulates that output on an ongoing basis.

I think being able to look at how the sector contributes to the broader objectives of the region – jobs, inward investment, business growth – and being able to articulate the role the sector can play and putting that into a national context is important. We have flipped the narrative around that investing in the sector is a priority for the combined authority as opposed to the combined authority continuing to fund the sector.

2. How do we ensure job quality, particularly around the real living wage? What experience have you got in encouraging businesses as they are growing to think about that?

This is something we engaged our partners with. Again, being able to work directly with them – rather than receiving applications and anonymously making funding decisions without having any direct connection with those businesses. There is something about taking those partners on a journey to realise their role and responsibility as employers, shifting the position away from chasing one project grant after another.

3. With a new government coming in, what is the one thing that you would ask for (that is not money)?

Empower arms-length bodies to work genuinely in place-based ways and to develop shared strategies for investment in places. But I do not think deploying a national mechanism with greater focus on standard programmes in certain areas is necessarily a sustainable approach.