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DM Brexit 1

In conversation with Design Manchester: Brexit & the creative industries

28th July, 2016

“Now is the time to do something.”

Malcolm Garrett, Design Manchester co-founder and creative director at Images&Co, could be talking about a new city-wide initiative here, but he’s not. He’s talking about the fallout from the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Malcolm reflected on the result in a chat with us, and he had plenty to say.

“You’ll have seen that I wrote a tweet immediately saying that now is the time more than ever for creative industries to actually stand up and do something,” he says. “It’s all our responsibility. That has been the most re-tweeted of our tweets so we know there is an appetite for the creative industries in Manchester, or the followers of Design Manchester because let’s not forget Design Manchester was always about balancing the UK. It’s as important to London as it is to Manchester and the North.”

When we spoke with Malcolm the shock and disbelief at the backing for Brexit was still raw, little has changed since the initial result came in.

Malcolm says: “Why was the IN campaign complacent? We took it for granted that it was common sense and everybody would agree instead of putting forward why we think we should be IN, why Europe is great, why it’s really important, why it makes you feel part of a global activity.

“In this internet world there are no borders. Instead of putting that forward we just said ‘the economy will suffer’, ‘this will suffer’, and just pointed out all the negative things. We didn’t push the positives. Where were the advertising companies when we needed them? Because the Brexiteers certainly had them.”

Despite the fog that has settled on Remain campaigners since losing the referendum, the Creative Industries Council (a joint forum between the creative industries and the Government) has stayed steadfastly upbeat, claiming earlier this month that creative exports can grow to £31 billion by 2020 following Brexit.

You might well expect a government-backed group to say that, so what of the Creative Industries Federation?

Two weeks after the EU referendum result, Design Manchester attended an emergency conference in London called by the Creative Industries Federation and immediately offered, with its partner the Manchester School of Art, to host a similar consultation in Manchester to ensure that the specific issues facing Greater Manchester are fed early into the process of briefing the government. That meeting is taking place on 28th July.

“It’s very important that we are clear in ourselves that Design Manchester is a support mechanism for all of the creative industries, all of the time, 365 days a year,” says Malcolm. “Our annual festival, DM, is just what takes place in October. This is a broader Design Manchester issue, we’ve got to step up and do something immediately. It’s separate to the festival.”

He adds: “It’ll be a Creative Industries Federation event, we’re just saying that we’re here to help stage that and make sure the right people have the right voice, the right platform and are heard. We absolutely have to be there in that conversation and helping that conversation to happen on the broadest possible platform.”

The Creative Industries Federation is the national membership organisation bringing together all of the UK’s arts, creative industries and cultural education to speak with extra clout. According to its own research, more than 96 per cent of its members supported ‘Remain’ in the EU vote.

So what went wrong? Malcolm reflects: “I was having a conversation with one of the tutors over at Manchester Metropolitan University and she pointed out that it’s classic stuff. Some £350 million goes to Europe? Almost true (actually it’s £270m). We’ll spend that on something else like the NHS. Untrue. So it is very clever campaigning, mixing half-truths with lies. And No surprise then when they come back and say, well, it’s not quite as simple as that. They’re liars…and none of them wanted to take responsibility for their actions.

“But I hope against hope that somebody will have the guts to stand up in Parliament and say ‘we’ll stay, we’ll rescue the economy and let’s look at what the problems actually are’.”

Kasper de Graaf, Malcolm’s partner at Images&Co and partnerships director of Design Manchester, was equally dismayed by the Referendum result, but in the current circumstances he believes the vote cannot be undone and that the industry - as the UK's biggest driver of growth and third biggest revenue earner - must make sure its realities are fully understood by those negotiating our new relationship with the EU.

“I think the situation that we’re in presents many challenges. And those challenges are faced by the industry we are speaking for at Design Manchester. Will we have available, when we need it, the right skills at the right time to scale up start-ups and projects? Of course we want our schools and universities to produce as much talent as needed and we want it to be available on tap. But we all know it isn’t. We all know that we need to have an open market for skill and talent which of course the Brexiteers say they are going to sort out. But the points system favoured by Brexiteers is expensive and bureaucratic and can't cater for the freelance market that is so vital to the creative industries.

“We need exchange of people and talent as a creative industry. Just like cross-sector innovation is something that drives economic growth, so cross-cultural inspiration is equally a driver of growth and innovation and of new thinking.”

Malcolm has some strong opinions on Design Manchester’s future in a post-Brexit world.

“We must make it clear why we exist,” he insists. “And we exist specifically to support industry and business and therefore, by extension, local communities. Why does every MMU graduate piss off to London the minute they graduate? It’s because this division between London and the rest of England has been allowed to really polarise.

“What Design Manchester has always intended to do from its outset is to redress that balance, to help people take local decisions with high quality international profile work with high profile international quality companies on offer, not just in Manchester but across the whole of the North of England. So it makes sense to stay here in a town that you love, that you grew up in or you came to because it’s fantastic, because there are great jobs here and there’s a career path. There has to be a whole range of opportunities.”

He adds: “Do we need an HS2, do we need to chop another ten minutes off the journey time to London? No. We need better connections between our great cities in the North. We need HS3. That’s where the money should be spent because that’s going to do the job. You need to be able to live in Bury and work in Liverpool. Or work in Leeds. Or choose between the two. The satellite towns that are suffering the most need to feel that they’re part of rebuilding something that’s worth rebuilding. And Design Manchester has an absolute responsibility to look at the industries in that way.”