How Colchester’s Creative Sector is Capitalising on its London Connections

Jun 28, 2017Connections, Creative

From its history as a centre for printing and design Colchester today is still a hub for creativity. The town’s thriving arts scene plays out across five theatres, five museums, galleries and clubs and societies developing skills across all genres and all media.

A recent NESTA/Creative England report ranks Colchester 8th in the UK for creativity. It is a happening place.

In 2012 The Creative Colchester partnership spotted the need for more dedicated space for artists and worked with Colchester Borough Council to develop the town’s former Police Station and nightclub, 37 Queen Street, as a creative business centre.  

The £2.6m project provides workspace, networking and showcasing facilities for the creative and digital industries with 40+ studios.  It’s also the hub for the town centre’s Ultrafast Broadband service offering Gigabit connectivity to some 800 town centre businesses through the Council’s CCTV network.  

With the need identified and building in place and a great cultural context (award-winning museums, galleries and a park are all within quarter mile) all that was needed was an experienced, connected and respected partner to run the centre.  

Enter London-based SPACE Studios. Established in 1968, SPACE is a leading visual arts organisation providing creative workspace, advocacy, support and promote innovation. Since 2014 SPACE had been looking to diversify its offer through its first venture outside the capital.

Chief Executive Anna Harding led the search.  “We had focussed on Kent, and had considered properties in Margate and Dover, as well as outer London boroughs. What made Colchester attractive was that Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council had already committed to invest in this high quality conversion of a great town centre property at 37 Queen Street into beautiful studios which we fell in love with. After considerable time and investment on their part it was relatively simple for us to step into such a great project. We’ve been looking around outer London searching for opportunities that are more affordable for people — and this is the best so far. Colchester is very well connected. It is close to London, which is handy for some of our tenants, but it is also a town with a strong identity of its own. It has an interesting creative community already, although it is under the radar.”   

“We had thought that with the increasing challenges of finding affordable space in London, establishing a hub in Colchester would encourage creative people to relocate, and also recent graduates to consider establishing their creative businesses in Colchester, rather than feeling the need to relocate to London.”

An interesting and more complex picture emerged however:   

  • With just one relocation from London 37 Queen Street met the local demand for creative space identified by the Creative Colchester Partnership   
  • However, other tenants had already moved to Colchester from London and then applied for space in 37 Queen Street   
  • The Centre still acts as a hub for creatives drawing in from Chelmsford and elsewhere with its reasonably priced flexible work space  
  • There is still local demand for creative workspace – some 25 businesses are on the waiting list  

It is clear that with its 750 tenants across 20 London Boroughs SPACE Studios is well placed to encourage relocations outside the capital and develop its offering in Colchester once grow-on space has been developed, effectively formulating 37 Queen Street as a start up hub in time.

What does this mean for Colchester?  The opportunity now is to develop ‘grow-on space’ so that these creative businesses can grow, recruit locally and intensify the local creative and digital sector and we are actively working on this now.  

Colchester is intensifying its creative connections with the capital.  Earlier this year the town featured as a ‘cultural impact area’ in the ambition to see the Thames Estuary transformed into a global creative industries production district, including proposals for several large-scale developments of international excellence.    

Launched by the South East Local Economic Partnership and the Mayor of London the Thames Estuary Production Corridor vision aims to service the creative economy across London and South East as the UK’s biggest growth sector. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills predicts 1.2 million new workers are needed in the sector over the next decade.   

Further plans include working with Tech City News to highlight the town’s Gigabit opportunity.  Just last month the town hosted the Rapture Gaming Festival a major national event which saw some 150 gamers playing simultaneously in a successful first live test of the Ultrafast Broadband capacity there.

It is clear that with world-class Broadband, a reasonable cost base, skilled people and easy access to London and space to grow, Colchester is well-placed to attract creative businesses from London.

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Colchester – Ultra Ready

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