Our Friend in the North East: Graeme Thompson on the region's flourishing creative tech industry

Our Friend in the North East: Graeme Thompson on the region's flourishing creative tech industry

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Graeme Thompson outlines what ‘levelling up’ looks like from his perspective

Picture the scene: one of the North’s most popular visitor attractions, nestling on the riverside site of a 7th-century priory, once home to the Venerable Bede, suddenly thrust into the media spotlight thanks to another noted chronicler of history – Boris Johnson.

Well, that was because, at the end of January, the National Glass Centre – part of the University of Sunderland – found itself hosting a symbolic “end of the EU era” Cabinet meeting. The site was closed to visitors as a fleet of government cars swept on to campus to deposit the PM and his senior team.

The cameras rolled as Johnson met staff and students and tried his hand at glass blowing before sitting down for Cabinet in a closed-off section of the café beside the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art.

Amid the photo opportunities, students mused on the PM’s pledge to “level-up” spending to win round communities feeling left behind by successive metro-centric administrations.

The UK2070 Commission, led by Lord Kerslake – formerly the UK’s most senior civil servant – has just published a report showing that the UK is now the most unequal large country in the developed world. Areas such as the North East have suffered most from decades of political and economic neglect.

Take television and the creative industries. Over the past 15 years, programme-makers and creatives here have seen production and commissioning increasingly focus on London, Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow.

Which is why there’s much excitement about the move of Channel 4 to Leeds – raising hopes that a commissioning centre east of the Pennines might have an impact further up the A1.

The area between North Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders is home to more than 2 million people but accounts for less than 2% of television production in the UK.

According to screen agency Northern Film + Media there are more than 370 registered crew available, along with some 1,000 film-friendly locations – such as the Tees Barrage, which played a key role in the flight of George MacKay in the movie 1917.

In reality, however, most local crew and production teams struggle to get TV and film work unless they are prepared to travel or lucky enough to be picked up by long-running shows such as ITV’s Vera, Lime’s Geordie Shore or CBBC’s The Dumping Ground.

As a result, the 2020 RTS North East and Border Awards, held at the end of February, had as many non-broadcast and student categories as TV.

One of the biggest cheers of the night went to the team behind Tees Valley Screen, which picked up a prize for work in supporting talent, ambition and growth across the ­Middlesbrough area.

It builds on the talent pipeline produced by the region’s six universities - Teesside, Sunderland, Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Cumbria. The institutions offer plenty of support, incubators and incentives to try and retain graduate talent – but the lure of bigger and brighter creative hubs can be irresistible.

It is a more positive story for creative tech in the region, which has grown 45% in the past five years, with a gross value added of around £3bn. It’s the highest growth outside London – more than 200 new companies established in the North East last year, attracted by highly skilled creatives and relatively cheap running costs.

Computer games, visual effects, VR/AR and animation are thriving, with big name players such as Ubisoft, ZeroLight and Sage. And the BBC has announced plans to open a major tech innovation hub in Newcastle.

So, to answer the students’ question, what would “levelling up” look like? Improved infrastructure, devolved decision-making, more emphasis on the quality-of-life advantages of working outside the capital, plus recognition from commissioners and investors that areas such as the North East need support to reach critical mass. Sounds like a vote winner to me.

Graeme Thompson is Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sunderland and Chair of the RTS Education Committee.

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