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Our Observations

Three places, three conversations and three diverse groups of freelance, self-employed and atypical workers - each with very different perspectives and individual stories to tell. Although we do not feel it is appropriate for Culture Commons to draw concrete policy positions from a small qualitative cohort at this stage, with the privilege of getting to spend time in each location and in reviewing and comparing the material collected across each workshop, we’ve been able to identify a few consistent themes that suggest common issues affecting the lives of creative and cultural sector workers, irrespective of where they may be located. In addition, we’ve identified several place-based variances that could help signpost decision makers towards more appropriate policy in the future.


We hope our observations will help to keep new insights on the freelance creative and cultural sector workforce up the policy agenda at the local and national levels, as well as help galvanise the sense of urgency we believe is still necessary from decision makers to support a creative and cultural sector workforce that is fit for the 21st century: innovative and equitable.


1.     Place matters


When we asked participants in each of our workshops whether they themselves felt that ‘place’ influences the ways they work, the resounding answer was: yes. 


From the astounding geological assets on display at the world class filming locations in Cornwall, to the relationships of mutual trust and reciprocity being formed between artists and commissioning organisations in Rotherham, we saw evidence of the ways that local assets can, with the right support and approaches, unlock opportunities for local creative and cultural sector workers. Therefore, the most dominant, yet perhaps the simplest of all the observation we can draw from this first series of workshops, is just how important a local environment (physical, geographical and social) is in shaping the careers and life experiences of freelancers in the creative and cultural sectors. In an increasingly globalised and post-pandemic world, that sees digital and online policy in the ascendance (particularly in relation to the production, dissemination and consumption of creative and cultural content), we want to emphasise how hyper-local physical infrastructures and programmes of activity will continue to play a critical role in enabling workers in our sectors to reach their full potential.


While the participants did seem to share a ‘universal freelancer experience’ (for example, all sharing frustration at the heavy workload and the anxiety associated with finding their next project), in terms of the work they were able to secure and the projects they were already involved with, these were often deeply connected to their local area and the social networks they were able to generate within them. 


Transport and connectivity


There were a several moments across the workshops when participants explained how physical isolation, whether through not having a car or having to move further out of town, actually hindered their opportunities to connect with work and generate income. Geographical isolation was a particular factor in Truro, where participants said they often felt disconnected to other parts of the UK. Interestingly, transport was not raised as a concern by participants in Croydon, perhaps reflecting the comparatively developed transport infrastructure we see linking up the capital locally, nationally and even internationally. The spatial differences we see between Truro and Croydon clearly raises much broader questions about the suitability of national level policy frameworks and programmes that are often structured around more urban areas. Culture Commons will continue to call for national level policy and funding mechanisms that meet the needs of non-urban and more rural areas.


Thankfully, we’re now seeing increasing evidence and acknowledgements of the contributions that the creative and cultural sectors can make towards the economies of local places. For example, the Local Government Association (LGA) report ‘Cornerstones of Culture’ (2022) brings together a vast wealth of evidence, including from Culture Commons, that the creative and cultural sectors can be crucial drivers of local economic growth and a healthy tourism economy [1]. In addition, Arts Council England (ACE) find that this growing understanding is also moving into the public consciousness, with half of all adults in England now wanting to see more culturally unique experiences on their high streets [2].


Local pride in place


The cultural support organisations in Rotherham, coupled with the comparatively low cost of living in the area, seems to have made for a good mix that has resulted in the most future-positive workshop of this 'Place' series; people born, raised and now working in the creative sectors within the wider South Yorkshire area, as well as those from further afield who now call the area home, seemed to be thriving in their area. Conversely, as we observed in Croydon, if local areas do not support their local workforce appropriately, they could see creatives looking elsewhere for inspiration, and possibly even moving out of the area altogether, taking their talents and potential with them.


It struck us during the workshop sessions just how well-placed the creative workers we met are in helping local areas, including local authorities, to both understand and articulate their distinctive local identities regionally, nationally and internationally too. The City of Culture programme and other cultural “mega events” often see local creative workforces showcased, but of course smaller interventions that may have less profile but also celebrate local cultural heritage can be equally as important to local people. We propose that decision makers in local places should continue to experiment with ways to celebrate the creative and cultural life of their area, through locally initiated City of Culture, Borough of Culture or other place-specific models more appropriate to the place type, ensuring local people, and the workforce, have an opportunity to contribute to the design, delivery and evaluation.


2.     Flexible working is the future


64% of our workshop participants were working in at least two of the sub-sectors we wanted to focus on for this project. During the workshop sessions, it became clear that many either worked across different sub-sectorss in order to sustain an income from their creative practice, or in different sectors of the economy altogether, for example by working “day jobs” for additional sources of income. The group in Rotherham actively recommended this approach to newcomers into their subsectors, proposing that it can be helpful not to “put their eggs in one basket” when thinking about income security. In this regard, though most of the participants in each location self-identified as ‘freelance’ when asked as part of the sign-up process, the anecdotal evidence we picked up during the sessions strongly suggests that the representation of our ‘atypical’ worker category could have been much higher than reported. 


Evidence gathered from each workshop suggests that interdisciplinary and mixed sub-sectoral working is becoming, and will continue to become, more commonplace. Local and national level decision makers may therefore want to consider reframing some support programmes for the creative and cultural sector workforce into something more holistic: getting beyond subsector silos towards new subsector-neutral and place-focussed interventions. This could see innovative and distinctive collaborations sprouting up across the country, making the best use of the local creative workforce in each area and helping to drive innovation. Of course, such approaches should not replace important programmes that meet the specific needs of different DCMS subsectors: it is our contention that both approaches can, and should, work together in mutually reinforcing ways.


To truly unlock the potential of freelancers in the creative and cultural sectors (and across the economy as a whole) methods for recording occupational data and the tax regime will need to be updated to keep up with the ever-changing working patterns so richly articulated by our workshop participants. This will help the creative and cultural workforce to move across different DCMS subsectors, different sectors of the economy and across different employment statuses without being penalised, for example as some of the freelance, creative and cultural sector workers excluded from UK Government support packages experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic [3].


3.     Networks make all the difference 


In each of the workshop sessions, participants explained that the often-self-contained nature of freelance, self-employed, and atypical employment can have a detrimental impact on mental health and wellbeing. We continue to see this coming through loud and clear from surveys being run by the sub-sectoral freelance networks that emerged during the pandemic.


Additionally participants were clear that most of their opportunities came through ”word of mouth” - “this person who knows this person, put me in touch with this person”. Indeed, "don't do it alone" was the advice offered up by the Croydon participants. Again, as a simple and general observation across all three locations, this could have been quite easily missed. Whilst it is hard for us to be sure without having explicitly asked each participant about income levels from their creative work, the more connected a participant was in each of the areas, the more positively they described their experience and more sustainable their operation appeared to be. However, it was clear that all the networks were not evenly distributed and further support in network development could help maximise what opportunities that are already there. In Rotherham, whilst a more established participant had active collaboration opportunities readily available to share, another younger participant didn’t know where to go next to get work, and another commented that she found it hard to reach young people in the area with her service offer. On this, a key recommendation from one of the participants was to have a dedicated ‘local networker’ on the ground working  acting as an ‘ear for the region’ to connect and inform local creatives about opportunities.

Despite the evidence of the importance of networks, we know that investments for such support activities can be difficult to 'sell' to policy makers given the difficulty in measuring outcomes. This is why Culture Commons will continue to work with policy colleagues across subsectors, as well as with the research community, to spotlight the critical role that networks play in developing skills and opportunities of creative freelancers.


In parallel to informal network development, more formalised structures such as collectives and cooperatives - (perhaps facilitated by local and/or combined authorities and key anchor institutions in the area) could work to pool together the skills and resources sitting within local freelance communities in more economical ways. More formalised models of cooperation could also help freelancers to engage more readily with the benefits that accumulate from ‘Community Wealth Building’ initiatives, including accessing procurement opportunities. 


Each of our findings on networks are very much in-line with those of our research partners at the Centre for Cultural Value who found that access to, and involvement in, networks were a significant factor in the ability of freelancers to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Together we have already made several recommendations to UK Government on networks, including the establishment of a new national-level coordinating body that can connect-up, fund and support the many sub-sectors- and place-specific networks that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic [4].


4.     More physical space is needed


While the issue of space came through the loudest in our Croydon workshop, the need for it was absolutely echoed in all the workshops. Primarily, participants were keen to express their need for access to flexible and affordable space on a more sustainable and permanent basis. This wasn’t just about getting into more traditional studio or recording space: participants were clearly hungry for places that inspire, facilitate connections with others and where they could find out more about what is going on in the local area. “We need a staffroom!” as one of the Rotherham participants described.


Combining the qualitative evidence across all three of the workshops and the mounting evidence we see in the policy arena, we believe that local leaders should carefully consider increasing investment in tailored workspaces and workspace schemes for freelancers. Of course, we do acknowledge that each of our three workshop locations have different spatial priorities to contend with, as well as different assets available to them. This means that each area’s response to spatial needs will likely look very different in each place. Yet, as our participants told us, space must move beyond “meanwhile” uses. We propose that Community Interest Companies (CIC) and Charitable Incorporated Organisations (CIO) with clear asset locks could support longer-term tenancies that enable creatives to base themselves in an area with real confidence.


Many national level funding opportunities could support this kind of activity, including for the ‘Levelling Up Fund’, ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ and ‘Community Ownership Fund’ - which could help local creatives take ownership of key buildings and assets that might otherwise be at risk. We also know that many councils have already used national funding pots to revitalise existing infrastructure to put them to better use [6].


In our recent paper on Creative Improvement Districts [6] (CIDs), we set out how the wider creative and cultural sectors can generate income and footfall to regenerate high streets and town centres. Mechanisms like this are not just about opening up new space to creatives, although this is, of course, an important part of the puzzle; they are also about building a microcosm of mutually reinforcing creative and ancillary sectors (e.g. night time economy, hospitality, retail) to deliver economic and social outcomes in a local community. From what was being shared in each of our workshops, such models could be ideal vehicles for both meeting the spatial needs of creative freelancers, and addressing some of the wider social policy priorities in each place, ultimately securing a longer-term and sustainable hub for the workforce.


5.     Professional and personal growth must be considered


From our conversations in Cornwall, it’s clear that career progression for mid-level professionals has become a real area for concern. Not being able to access repeat funding, a limited capacity in local opportunities, combined with the feeling of being geographically isolated from other key places means our participants in Cornwall felt at real risk of stagnation. This leads us to the question; what more can be done to grow mid-career creative and cultural sector freelancers in different parts of the country?


A role for the private sector 


Participants in Cornwall discussed how many private companies, travelling to the area for location-based work, had often overlooked local talent. Ensuring activity from external companies brings benefits to the local economy, including in employment and skills development this generates, has long been part of the sustainable development agenda and continues to drive many third sector ‘green economy’ initiatives such as the B-Lab’s ‘Corp B’ assessment framework [7]. Medium and large companies operating in the UK should continue to consider the sustainability of their operations and how they can better work with the micro and small creative and cultural sector organisations in the area, as well as tap into the local workforce through established networks. Local leaders could also consider locally based schemes, such as ‘Good Work’ initiatives being rolled-out by Metro Mayors [8], that spotlight private organisations, whether SME, medium or large, that are already developing inclusive practices. Tailored funding programmes could be part of the mix, especially if delivered by combined or local authorities with a clear skills strategy and in partnerships with creative and cultural sector employers and further education institutions locally.


Developing Bridges


 We wondered how 'bridging programmes' could encourage collaborations between workers in different parts of the UK and help in the exchange of knowledge, skills and access to local assets across talent pools. Thought could be given to ‘project exchanges’ or domestic ‘twinning programmes’ that bring networks from one part of the country together with another, perhaps linked to the legacy activities associated with the UK City of Culture programme or through innovative town-/borough-/region-wide networks and bodies such as the M11 group of combined authorities.


Opportunities in public services 


There is an increasing volume of research evidencing the ability of creative and cultural activity to support positive outcomes in physical and mental health, local economic regeneration, educational attainment and intercultural dialogue. But, “We need to foster cultural awareness in civic organisations” one participant from Cornwall told us unequivocally. We know that many public sector organisations are, as with the publicly funded cultural sector, under considerable financial strain at the moment. By working together more closely, wider civil society and the cultural sector could deliver both statutory and non-statutory public service in new ways, and closer to home, than ever before.


Building strategic links that extend beyond traditional creative and cultural sectors would not only capitalise on the trends we’ve seen since the pandemic for the public to want to engage with cultural activity closer to home, but also provide high quality work opportunities for freelancers. We’ll continue to work with our national partners, including the NHS, to communicate the ways in which freelancers in the creative and cultural sectors could play a more central role in social proscribing activities, and with local authorities who are looking to work with creative freelancers to bring creative practices and methodologies into town planning and engagement processes.


6.     Locally based creative and cultural support organisations should  be critical distributors of freelance opportunities


In Rotherham, it was clear that several ACE National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are truly connected to many of the participants we had in the room. These relationships were clearly vital in offering opportunities that empower local creatives at earlier career stages to deliver projects through relationships of “trust” while removing some of the concerns participants had around the levels of risk that national grant giving bodies were willing to take, which was perceived to be increasingly low. Trusting the local workforce seemed to be creating quicker routes into work for creatives needing exposure, experience and development.


From our small collection of conservations, we can say with some confidence that ACE investments in NPOs in  Rotherham are generating several positive outcomes for freelancers and we are looking forward to watching how those outcomes compound since an uplift for the area in the ACE’s 2023-2026 funding round [9]. On witnessing the effectiveness of trust based approached, we believe all NPOs and other grant-giving organisations in receipt of, or distributing, public funds should consider how they might build-in such approaches to “irrigate” local creative workforces much more quickly.


Though few specific national funding schemes were mentioned in the workshops, ACE’s ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ (DYCP) [10] did surface on several occasions. Importantly, creatives at very different stages of their careers expressed how helpful and straightforward the application process was to access. In some cases, funding obtained through the scheme was being used to help the freelance community to develop more meaningful relationships with local cultural support organisations in their area. We encourage ACE to maintain, and - where possible - increase funding allocated towards the DYCP programme. It could also be worthwhile reviewing where take-up of DYCP was low, and the factors involved, with a view to moving the programme towards a non-competition-based model of investment that gets funds to areas, and the local freelance workforce, that would benefit from such investment most.


7.     Better engagement with under-represented groups is needed


From the demographic profile of those applying to our workshops, we know there is more to do more to reach and enable particular demographic groups to access these types of policy discussions and research opportunities.


In addition, from our Rotherham discussion, it was also reported that the South Asian community felt as if engagement with them was more about their ethnicity than their practice and talents. We didn’t have any further discussion on race and ethnicity in the other locations, so we believe it would be beneficial to carry out further discussions to understand how places, particularly smaller towns and rural areas, might ensure authentic, balanced, and representative workforces are engaged and supported in the local creative and cultural sectors. Given that minoritised ethnic groups were some of the demographics most likely to lose working hours during the COVID-19 pandemic (and we know that the creative and cultural sectors also continue to be some of the least diverse sectors in the UK economy) this form of engagement is vital to get right.


From our discussions with our LGBTQIA+ participants, we were struck at how their creative practice was strongly linked to their sense of identity; with their practice informing and ameliorating their expression of self, gender and sexuality, and vice versa. We would be interested to work with like-minded stakeholders, to explore the role of the creative and cultural sectors in LGBTQIA+ health and wellbeing; and, in particular, how this varies in different urban and rural places. 


Lastly, during the Croydon workshop, one of the participants noted that working class artists in the area felt increasing pushed out by the slow creep of gentrification and spoke of larger creatives and cultural institutions role within this. Recent evidence from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre seems to confirm this, finding that around 200,000 working class creatives are missing from the creative industries [11]. At Culture Commons we believe that creative and cultural sectors hold the potential to regeneration local economies and high streets. Yet, from our workshop discussions we’ve been reminded that any cultural strategy aimed at supporting the regeneration of place-based economies must include local working class people and creatives, guarding against the unintended impacts of gentrification.


While we touched on issues relating to diversity and inclusion of different demographic groups throughout our workshop discussions, we feel we have unearthed more questions that we had space to address. This is an important stage to be at in of itself, and we therefore believe it would be highly beneficial to conduct further workshops, focussed on different demographic groups.


8.     Employment structures require a serious review 


We were struck during our discussions that several participants mentioned how, as neurodiverse individuals, they favoured a freelance, self-employed or atypical working pattern because it enabled them to work with themselves, rather than against. Participants in Croydon and Rotherham shared that more flexible, even seasonal, working patterns, such as the ability to work different hours, or on different projects helped them not only access employment, but also flourish in their creative practices. However, given that the participants were clear about the downsides of the freelance life, including hidden or free work, anxiety of generating pipeline and no sick or special leave policies, we know that these benefits come with considerable cost and risk, producing, in our view, a zero net benefit for many.


We therefore believe that it is imperative to explore how PAYE structures can be more flexible and responsive to the diversity of 21st century working patterns, alongside how freelancers can be provided with baseline benefits readily available to those in PAYE structures (such as sick pay, maternity and paternity leave, holiday pay etc), to begin to balance out the discrepancies. Unlocking the power of seasonal working, empowering individuals to work to their own strengths, whilst also providing crucial statutory protections and entitlements, could be crucial to unlocking the full economic and social potential of the creative and cultural sector workforce. 


Culture Commons will be sharing our observations on employment structures with colleagues at Creative UK in relation to their ‘Redesigning Freelancers' programme [11]; the PEC’s ongoing ‘Good Work Review’ [12]; and will be renewing our calls for a UK Government ‘Commissioner for Freelancers’ so that some of the issues the participants raised in the workshops can be seriously addressed for the benefit of the UK economy and workforce as a whole. We know that the UK’s creative and cultural workforce are often at the forefront of the ‘future of work’, and that the UK economy, and wider society, could benefit substantially if employment practices keep pace with them.


9.     We need to create more opportunities for local input


During the course of our workshops, we noticed just how many of the participants, in all three areas, strongly welcomed the opportunity to share their option on what was happening in their local area and share their ideas and solutions on what could help. As some of the participants in Truro proposed, as creative thinkers and problem solvers, the creative workforce could support with the realisation of cross-cutting policy challenges faced in an area. 


We believe that more should be done, both at the local and national level, to engage the workforce in solving the problems facing their sector.  Our proposed ‘Culture Forum’ programme could be one way to do support this; locally embedded mechanisms that would see the creative and cultural sectors, the associated workforce, the public and decision makers brought together to co-create a cultural strategy for an area. We will continue to develop this thinking with partners.


[1] The Local Government Associations commission on culture (see pg 15)

[2] Local Government Association case studies on culture-led regeneration: : 

[3] See ‘Excluded UK’ website for many examples of creative and cultural sector workers being excluded from state support during the Covid-19 pandemic:

[4] See this and other recommendations to the UK Government here:

[5] See Local Government Association recent on culture:

[6] See our ‘Creative Improvement Districts’ commissioned by University of Manchester:

[7] See the B-Corp website:

[8] Just one example of the use of ‘good employment' charters including usage in the creative and cultural sector itself, would be West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris:

[9] See Arts Council England full NPO round announced late 2022: 

[10] Details of the Arts Council England’s current ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ programme: 

[11] Creative Industries Policy and Evidence centre research on workers from working class backgrounds:

[12] Creative UK’s ‘Redesigning Freelancing’ activity

[13] Culture Commons recommendations to UK Government from 2022:

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