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Transforming the Thames Estuary

13th Nov 2019

We spoke to Emma Wilcox, Project Director of Creative Estuary, about her vision for the Thames Estuary and its cultural offer for the local community and further afield. The project will catalyse regeneration in the area thanks to a grant of £4.3 million from the DCMS Cultural Development Fund alongside a further £2.7 million in support and investment from partners. The University of Kent led the successful bid submission to the fund on behalf of the multiple partners working together on the Thames Estuary Production Corridor (TEPC), all of whom are on the Steering Group of the Creative Estuary project. Launched in 2017 by the Mayor of London in partnership with the South East Creative Economy Network, the Thames Estuary Production Corridor vision established a bold aspiration to develop a world class cluster of cultural and creative production along the Thames Estuary.

Creative Estuary is the first significant cross-Estuary project and is a proof of concept for the TEPC’s vision in Kent and Essex, building on extensive research. The intentions to deliver action against vision can be read about in this report, which outlines the evidence for the need and opportunity for investment in this area of the country to improve the lives of its communities through a focus on the creative and cultural industries.

In the Estuary region there are areas of poverty, deprivation and disadvantage cheek by jowl with areas of high prosperity, wealth and opportunity. Skills levels in parts of the Estuary are low, and Creative Estuary’s ambition is to tackle this through a bespoke skills programme. Research which underpins the TEPC vision has shown that there are thousands of people employed in the creative industries who live in the area but commute outside of it to work. As such, there is strong argument to be made to creative businesses to look at relocating to the area given the existing highly skilled professionals and the future workforce of young people who will be skilled up by the Creative Estuary.

There are three broad and inter-linked thematic areas that the Creative Estuary project is focusing on:

Places and Spaces – Considering models for sustainable workspaces by looking at repurposing existing public assets, influencing the planning of new developments and attracting inward investment. Creative Estuary will explore sustainable models for creative workspace, mindful of the issues that gentrification has had on pricing artists out of areas elsewhere. They will be supporting the creation of artists’ studios and workspaces, as well as fabrication spaces much needed by the creative sector and utilising the existing highly skilled manufacturing workforce. Creative Estuary will celebrate both the natural and post-industrial landscape of the Estuary through large scale events and commissions.

Identity – Emma is interested in telling a new story about this part of the country to capture people’s imaginations, to change perceptions both with those external to the region, making the Thames Estuary as well known a brand as the Northern Powerhouse, and with those living in the locality. Empowering local people to feel more excited, ambitious and hopeful about the future of the area, and celebrating its identity are key ambitions.

People – thinking about communities locally and how they can participate in festivals and events that are being developed, as well as considering what employment opportunities can be offered. Promoting the creative industries, visible as a career opportunity for young people, creating a home-grown workforce, and retaining graduates and young people who have grown up in the area are all on the agenda.

Estuary 2020 is a flagship Creative Estuary project being delivered by Metal and Cement Fields and will take place September to October 2020. There will also be a series of Estuary Commissions (in development), with discussions underway on how work might respond to a particular place or a particular community that wants to create work. RE:Generation 2031 will focus on developing the workforce of the future, will be led by the needs and ambitions of young people. It will include the delivery of new commissions including digital commissioning and creative production.

Emma has an ambition to work with Estuary based fabricators and production companies to source the skills and expertise needed on the cultural commissions wherever possible, supporting the concept that the area should be a hub of creative production. Emma is also committed to working with students on courses such as the University of Kent’s MA Event Production, University of Essex’s BA Creative Producing graduates and event production, or digital students from FE colleges.

Emma has a good knowledge of the region having worked across North Kent since 2005, working at University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, at Kent County Council in a cultural policy role, and Arts Council England in Regional Planning across both the South East and East regions. As an independent producer Emma worked with many partners across Kent including two editions of the Folkestone Triennial and for Turner Contemporary. Emma is excited by the potential that the project offers her to put into action some of the policy work that she developed in her previous roles and is now is in a position to deliver.

In her role as Project Director, Emma is spending time travelling around the Estuary region meeting with partners. She is journeying around the country to see examples of best practice in places such as Luton, Edinburgh, Leeds, and Coventry. Both Emma and project partners are keen to learn from and be inspired by the work that others have already been successful with.

Emma is mindful of the responsibility that she has been given and the need, sometimes, to reign in the huge ambitions she has for the project. She wants Creative Estuary to be a continuously learning project, and for there to be openness and willingness from partners, funders and external agencies to reflect on how extraordinary the delivery of this project will be. Creative Estuary is about maximising the artistic, cultural and heritage assets and creating transformational change for the people who live and work in the Estuary.

Follow the Creative Estuary on Twitter.

Photo: courtesy Emma Wilcox.

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