London creatives moving to Milan? "It's my job to stop that from happening" says Matt Hancock
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London creatives moving to Milan? "It's my job to stop that from happening" says Matt Hancock

UK culture secretary Matt Hancock has defended the government's support for the design industry, and has pencilled in a trip to Milan design week next year to champion UK designers.

He stressed the importance of teaching creative subjects to children, in the light of widespread concern over the new curriculum, which prioritises academic subjects over the arts.

Hancock spoke exclusively to Dezeen in a telephone interview – the first with a design publication since his promotion to the cabinet in January.

He said that fears that design has slipped down his department's priority list were "completely unfounded" and said he would consider making a trip to Milan next year to demonstrate his commitment to the UK contingent.

Design is a way of "putting our stamp on the world"

"The impact of the creative industries, of design and architecture in particular, are of course economic and they are a great export opportunity," he said.

"But there's more than that. Because they are about putting our stamp on the world. Britain has an amazing reputation, particularly in these areas. And we should shout that from the rooftops and so I'm very keen to do my part."

Dezeen's Brexit Design Manifesto, published in 2016 and presented to Hancock at a dinner in London in November that year, pointed out that architecture and design were among the most recognised expressions of the UK's global soft power, and that therefore the government should actively back the sector in the wake of Brexit.

French are "playing catch up"

However Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A Museum in London, recently expressed concern that France was outgunning the UK in the soft-power stakes, with Jean Nouvel's spectacular Louvre Abu Dhabi making a particularly strong statement about that nation's cultural clout.

But Hancock was dismissive, pointing to the V&A's own collaboration with a new design museum in Shenzhen, and a forthcoming British Museum exhibition in India.

"Links around the world are strengthening from our side," he said. "I'm delighted the French have come to the party but they are playing catch up."

Hancock also responded to a recent Dezeen story about creatives leaving London for Milan. "It's my job to stop that from happening," he said.

When asked how he would do that, he replied: "It's a question of public support in some cases, especially for the high cultural institutions, and the support for the protection of intellectual property; making sure whether European protection is brought into UK law and where necessary strengthening protection further. And making sure that we get the education system right too."

"It's important kids are taught to be creatively rigorous"

On education, he stressed the importance of exposing children to creative subjects, despite the government's apparent insistence on forcing them to focus on English, maths, science and other academic subjects that are at the heart of the new English Baccalaureat (EBacc) curriculum.

As a result, the numbers of students taking creative subjects at degree level is plummeting and industry figures are warning of a future talent crisis.

"If you look at the best schools that gets the best results, they teach a broad curriculum but they are also rigorous," Hancock said. "It's important that education teaches kids to be creatively rigorous too. But I don't see it as an either or."

Hancock, 39, has been MP for West Suffolk since 2010. He is viewed as an ambitious high-flyer and in January was promoted by prime minister Theresa May from the post of culture minister to culture secretary, making him head of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and a member of the cabinet.

Hancock voted remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum in contrast to his constituency, where 63.3 per cent of voters opted to leave the European Union.

"We've got to design the future immigration system"

One of the biggest concerns voiced by signatories of Dezeen's Brexit Design Manifesto is the loss of access to EU talent in Brexit leads to stricter immigration controls.

Hancock tried to reassure the sector. "We are going to be open to the brightest and best talent from around the world" after Brexit, he said. "So of course, we will continue to work with our European partners. But design has never been a Europe-only project. The best of design has global influences. And we've got to design the future immigration system to make sure that we continue to attract the brightest and best.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview:

Marcus Fairs: I'm in Milan. You know about the importance of Milan design week for the design world, right?

Matt Hancock: Yes, yes, yes.

Marcus Fairs: I was thinking just now that Dutch ministers have been out here, touring the Dutch installations.I don't remember anyone from the UK government coming out though.

Matt Hancock: That's a great idea. We should definitely pencil that in for next year if we can.

Marcus Fairs: We just published a story on Dezeen saying that Milan is going to benefit from Brexit because creative businesses would start to possibly decamp from London, including Italians that left Milan in the first place.

Matt Hancock: It's my job to stop that from happening.

Marcus Fairs: How you are going to do that?

Matt Hancock: Putting the creative industries at the heart of how we support the economy to grow in the future is mission critical, including design and all of it its wide range of manifestations. We're doing a creative industries sector deal, which is the mechanism, which is the way in government that we're corralling our policies.

It's a question of public support in some cases, especially for the high cultural institutions, and the support for the protection of intellectual property; making sure whether European protection is brought into UK law and where necessary strengthening protection further. And making sure that we get the education system right too.

Marcus Fairs: Getting education sector right; how are you going to do that? The sector fears that creativity has been squeezed out the education system at the expense of more mechanical subjects that, people say, robots will be able to do better than humans in future. How are we going to make sure that we retain our creative edge in the UK?

Matt Hancock: The way I put it is that the economy is changing and increasingly rewarding the people who are creative and writing the code. Our education system need to change to reflect that. Which means a rigorous education that teaches people both the core skills that you've always needed, like English and maths, and also how to have an inquiring and creative mind.

I think this is eminently doable; all the evidence shows that if you do music, you get better results at maths. We announced £96 million for arts and music education two weeks ago, so I think there is a growing sense that this is direction we need to go.

Marcus Fairs: The English Baccalaureate curriculum makes it easy for schools to drop creative subjects. It seems that the focus in on technical skills at the expense of creative ones.

Matt Hancock: If you look at the best schools that gets the best results, they teach a broad curriculum but they are also rigorous. It's important that education teaches kids to be creatively rigorous too. But I don't see it as an either or.

Marcus Fairs: You said that it's your job to "stop that happening" in terms of creative business leaving the UK, but how? One of the big things that came out of Dezeen's Brexit Design Manifesto was that people were concerned about being able to hire creative talents, wherever they come from Rotherham or Milan or wherever. So how can we reassure creative businesses that the UK is still going to be able to hire international talent after Brexit?

Matt Hancock: We are going to be open to the brightest and best talent from around the world. So of course, we will continue to work with our European partners. But design has never been a Europe-only project. The best of design has global influences. And we've got to design the future immigration system to make sure that we continue to attract the brightest and best.

Marcus Fairs: And what are the concrete steps that are being taken into to ensure that that happens?

Matt Hancock: We're making sure that the needs of the sectors are listened to carefully. They're reflected into the formal work that is seeding into the design of the new immigration system, which is being done by the Migration Advisory Committee.

And I thought they published a very good report two weeks ago, which set out to the needs of different sectors right across the economy and including the creative industries.

They also acknowledge the need for people that work in different ways. Not everybody works 9 to 5 in large companies and this is especially true in the creative industries, where more people are employed in smaller businesses than across the rest of the economy.

That was well reflected in the evidence that was published and on the back of that evidence, the work that is going on now to design the future immigration system.

The fact is, as we leave the EU, Britain will be able to choose its own immigration system rather than having free movement with one part of the world and a managed system with elsewhere. The evidence is that the value that is brought to Britain from people that are working in the creative industries, of which design is at the heart, is very high.

Marcus Fairs: I was in Shanghai a few weeks ago. The creative energy is tangible. The government is putting huge amounts of money into training the next generation of designers, engineers, architects and so on that can create home-grown intellectual property. I mean, the days when Chinese students had to look to the west to get a sense of what creativity is and to get a good creative education, may nearly be over. So how can we make sure that we remain competitive with countries like China?

Matt Hancock: Well it's not a zero-sum game. As China develops, so that brings opportunities for us too. It's not like development in China means less development here; on the contrary. Over generations, we've benefitted from that sort of growth and development in other markets.

In the twentieth century it was the rise of the US and in the twenty-first century, Asia broadly and China in particular are developing very quickly, going up the value chain and strengthening their education systems. Actually, they look to us in terms of education; for how to improve their education. So it's not a zero-sum game.

Marcus Fairs: Back to immigration: the government has made it quite hard for international students to come and study in the UK. And students have been counted in the immigration figures, even though they usually return home after their studies.

Matt Hancock: The government's position has been very clear for some time. Of course, students bring great value, but we need to have a controlled system.

Marcus Fairs: Is there any chance that will change?

Matt Hancock: That is not something we've announced.

Marcus Fairs: One other thing you did was to change the name of the department from Department for Culture, Media and Sport to Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. You put "Digital" at the front.

I think it's possible that some people in the kind of more traditional creative sectors feel that they have been deprioritised, even though understandably digital is a hugely growing part of the economy. What would you say to people in the architecture and design side of things who might feel like they are not being given so much love?

Matt Hancock: That's interesting. I've never heard that. The truth is, this whole area is growing so fast, and faster than the rest of the economy. Of course, the links to the digital agenda are very, very strong and there is growth on all sides of the department.

But I have not heard these concerns before. But if anybody has them they're completely unfounded. There's an enormous amount of enthusiasm, not only across the department but across the government. The industrial strategy is a case in point. This is a cross-government plan for how we support businesses to grow and it is punctuated throughout with the need for creativity, intellectual-property protection, use of digital technology and the use of human ingenuity in creativity too. So I really don't recognize that at all.

Marcus Fairs: When we had the Brexit Design Manifesto dinner with you over a year ago, one of the things you said was that whatever the sector lobbies for, it has got to be for the whole country. You said that the architecture and design sector mustn't come across as a privileged metropolitan elite.

Some people think that London has more than its fair share of the nation's wealth, talent and culture. In the context of our story about creative people leaving London to return to places like Milan, is it okay for London to lose a bit of its lustre? Should it be spread around the country?

Matt Hancock: No! No! No! The other parts should grow too, and hopefully grow more. But you don't support the growth of the rest of the country by constraining the capital. You make sure that the benefits of that growth and that strengthening is spread everywhere. Strengthening the links and the relationships outside the capital where there's often more capacity, is a big drive and a big opportunity. But you don't do that by constraining the capital.

Marcus Fairs: A key argument in our Brexit Design Manifesto was that architecture and design is part of the UK's soft power. But if creative businesses can't get the talent they need or if they start relocating to places like Milan, the sector will suffer. Therefore the country will suffer too. What are you doing to champion the sector?

Matt Hancock: Look, the impact of the creative industries, of design and architecture in particular, are of course economic and they are a great export opportunity. But there's more than that. Because, they are about putting our stamp on the world. Britain has an amazing reputation, particularly in these areas. And we should shout that from the rooftops and so I'm very keen to do my part.

Marcus Fairs: Some people would say that the French are doing better than us in terms of projecting their cultural prestige to the world. They have opened the Louvre in Abu Dhabi; French president Emmanuel Macron hosted that amazing Bastille Day parade where the marching band played Daft Punk for Donald Trump.

Matt Hancock: You see what is going to happen on Saturday night at the Commonwealth party at the Royal Albert Hall. We can have our big show event too. But it's about more than that. It's also about getting out around the world. The V&A has got the first formal tie-up with a museum in Shenzhen and next up, I'm going to Delhi where the British Museum is opening its first exhibition.

So links around the world are strengthening from our side. I'm delighted the French have come to the party but they are playing catch up.

Image is courtesy of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.