Back in July 2020, Creative Northumberland’s newsletter shared a link to a survey inviting creative freelancers in Northumberland, Coventry and Waltham Forest to contribute to research into the “crucial contribution of freelancers to the creative industries”1.
I’m Yvonne Conchie, a heritage freelancer who is based on the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I work with grassroots communities and other organisations to become more resilient by making the best of their wildlife, history, and landscapes. So, I signed up.
The study was intended to
“generate new insights into the business models of creative freelancers and their relationship to local labour markets, creative networks, supply chains and innovation systems – as well as identifying the challenges that they face.”
So after interviewing 30 or so self-defining freelancers from each of the three places, earlier this week the researchers from Coventry University asked if I would like to join their panel when they presented their interim results.
The workshop would have the theme Needs and possibilities for creative freelancer businesses in reset, recovery and building back better.
On the panel I’d be alongside senior staff from a number of national bodies representing single arts discipline based creatives. If I could talk on behalf of Freelancers, Heritage and Northumberland that would be great. They gave me five minutes…
So, here’s what I said:
Q1 What does creative freelancer mean from your perspective in / on the sector?
· Cross discipline, independent, instigating, and reactive, we join dots and have wide experience, knowledge and networks in our field and locality.
Q2 What did you see / know to be the main challenges and barriers for creative freelancers pre-Covid-19?
· Unpaid work – often salaried staff in organisations assume we’re willing and able to just turn up and contribute our hard won experience and ideas in return for intangible “benefits/exposure” – this doesn’t pay the bills
· Applications – often require a massive investment and reinvestment of unpaid time for high risk and opportunity costs. Local Authority procurement portals are geared up for companies not sole traders – NEPO is awful in my experience, and I know of many freelancers only ever bother to apply once as the opportunity cost is too high.
· Flexibility – this often only goes one way with freelancers expected to adapt to changing circumstances, but the commissioning organisation is inflexible (e.g. for payment schedules) or requires unreasonable assurances.
· Networking – particularly for those of us living in Northumberland, travel time and costs are significant and the connections between us are thinly stretched and very fragile. All three places in the study area had circa 300,000 residents, but Coventry has 8000people/square mile, Waltham Forest has 18,000, yet Northumberland has only 170. That’s why websites like this are such a great resource.
· Capacity for strategic support – in Northumberland we have one person employed by the Local Authority, Wendy Scott who covers both arts and heritage, for a county with 8 NPOs, and 1 Sector support org, three protected landscapes, and a world heritage site. Before the austerity cuts, Wendy had 14 colleagues.
· Broadband speeds for us but also our clients – until we got a community broadband2 scheme here in Allendale, where we actually had to dig the fibre in by hand, our BT connection was 11MBps down and 0.3MBps upload which was quite fast compared to Allenheads!
· Inclusion – are standard funders’ inclusion criteria the most appropriate for Northumberland? Are more people here excluded by geography, the costs of time and transport (49.1% of Northumberland residents live in an area classed as rural3), and social isolation, than by ethnicity (1.6% of Northumberland population are non-white British3) or disability (4% of Northumberland population claim disability benefits3)?
Like London is the ball bearing that bends the rubber sheet tipping national resources there, is Newcastle/Gateshead similar for us attracting regional resources because of population numbers and diversity are what is counted?
Q3 Have any of these been reinforced / made more visible by the circumstances around the pandemic?
· Broadband has got worse – with more people working from home, plus school children using online learning, internet service bandwidth has more demands on it in many households.
· Initially communications got much worse as many workers adapted to new technologies, hardware and platforms, as well as the sudden shift in lifestyle.
· Difficult to plan ahead – funding programmes have closed and new ones opened, deadlines have shifted, audience needs and priorities have changed, caring responsibilities can suddenly appear.
· SEISS grant not reflective of recent earnings and not open to everyone particularly freelancers who are start-ups, p/t employed or directors of their company (rather than sole trader) – follow #excludedUk and #ForgottenLtd for self-organised mutual aid and support4.
· Stretched timelines – as projects have been extended, we have the same income from a fixed contract, but it’s stretched out over a longer (indefinite) period.
· Decrease in interaction with places and people causes reduced inspiration and understanding, and an absence of serendipity.
Q4 Has the pandemic showed up positive elements related to creative freelancers and their business models?
· Fewer meetings and site visits, means reduced travel costs and time, allowing better work-life balance As I now don’t need to travel for hours, use my car.
· Work time has become more contemplative – where do we want to go, how do we want to get there, why are we choosing these outcomes?
· Changes in funders’ priorities to benefitting people and meeting their needs will hopefully increase the relevance and benefits of engaging with arts, heritage and culture for more people.
· Digital communications have matured for mass audiences. Latterly the prevalence of online video conferencing, when done well, has increased accessibility for many of us in rural areas. This culturenorthumberland.co.uk website and on social media has allowed us to communicate, network and support each other.
· Hyperlocalism is blossoming, we are able to work where we live, invest our skills, time and knowledge in our own communities to make them better places to live, work and hopefully visit in the future. This approach is advocated in the North East Culture Partnership’s Covid recovery and resilience plan5.
Q5 What do you want to see in the future – structures, processes, or other aspects?
2. Maintain the digital communications - it frees up our time, reduces our costs and is more inclusive
3. We need you to help us invest and reinvest in the hyperlocal: communities, places (how can churches, historic buildings and outdoor sites become new venues?) and audiences to build delight and advocacy for us to benefit more people to experience them
So, I left them with these three points – hope you agree with them?
Rural and heritage based, community led, social innovation
Supporting grassroots communities to become more resilient by making the best of their wildlife, history, and landscapes.
1 Summary of the research project - https://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/research-directories/current-projects/2020/creative-freelancer-business-models-and-place-based-growth/
2 Community Broadband: www.b4rn.org.uk
3 Northumberland demographic data published March 2018: https://www.northumberland.gov.uk/NorthumberlandCountyCouncil/media/Northumberland-Knowledge/Know%20bulletins/26-Population-and-Health-Bulletin-Mar18.pdf