Creative sector support and cultural activation in Lewisham-based businesses

This case study demonstrates the economic and cultural value of a portfolio of creative business support programmes delivered by Goldsmiths, University of London in partnership with (and funded by) Lewisham Council.

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This case study is part of a series from the LGA Culture Commission


We have supported creative businesses to achieve their full potential, and unlocked the creative potential among business owners in other sectors. We have worked to ensure businesses can maximise the benefits of Lewisham’s Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ) and its year as Borough of Culture.   

These projects formed part of Goldsmiths’ Knowledge Exchange activity, building on our research base to create meaningful, multidirectional exchanges with local businesses and cultural organisations.   

The challenge

The challenges for Lewisham Council, Goldsmiths and our partners in the borough are outlined in our Civic University Agreement. Residents, businesses and the council have worked to identify an action plan across four areas:  

  • Educational opportunities and supporting learning aspiration 

  • Economic prosperity, jobs and growth 

  • Culture, Health and Well-being 

  • Environmental Sustainability

Our challenges worsened exponentially due to the Covid-19 pandemic, due to economic and health crises, and redirected support and spending. 

It is in this context that the council developed a number of business support programmes, including those specifically focussed on the Creative Industries.  

Historically, Lewisham has been a predominantly residential borough, with the vast majority of residents commuting out of the borough for work.

However, Lewisham is also a hub of creativity, driven by education, cultural infrastructure, affordable studio spaces and a council committed to supporting the creative industries. Lewisham successfully bid to be one of London’s first Creative Enterprise Zones (CEZs), boosting the creative sector in Deptford and New Cross and developing an aligned strategic vision across a wide range of partners. Lewisham was then awarded the coveted Borough of Culture, scheduled for 2021 but delayed to 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

So, the specific challenges for these projects were to: 

  • support and grow the creative sector 

  • foster a culture of creativity among residents and businesses  

  • convert this into tangible economic benefit 

  • tackle the borough’s other challenges such as unemployment, pollution and crime.  

Importantly, our approach focuses on participatory co-design and user-informed interventions. Our challenge was to balance our sector-specific expertise and vision with a need to assess and address the requirements of the organisations we work with.  

The solution

Support for creative sector businesses 

As part of the CEZ, Goldsmiths delivered the Creative Business Exchange, which brought Lewisham creative businesses together as a forum for information exchange and showcasing. Part of this was Catalyst; a programme of targeted innovative business support helping Lewisham creative businesses to sustain during the pandemic. We also produced a report which explored the impact of the CEZ on creative freelancers within the borough. This report was key in evaluating the support delivered, and in shaping subsequent programmes.  

As part of Lewisham’s Creative Futures programme, funded by the UK Community Renewal Fund and linked to the Borough of Culture Programme, Goldsmiths is delivering creative sector business support, and developed the Skills Highway, a bespoke online platform highlighting pathways into education, employment and training in the creative industries. We hosted a Creative Futures Careers Fair in May 2022, bringing together creative businesses from across London and linking them to people interested in pursuing careers in the creative sector.  

Cultural Activation in small, independent businesses 

Inspire Lewisham is a programme to upskill Lewisham-based residents not in employment, education or training (NEET) and help them towards creative sector jobs. The programme also supports businesses to grow their capacity to employ people from NEET backgrounds in creative roles. The programme is part-funded through the European Skills Fund (ESF) and part by Lewisham Council as part of the CEZ, alongside delivery partners The Albany, Lewisham College and Do It Now Now. 

Alongside this, we have run a pioneering programme to support high street businesses up and down the borough to get involved with Borough of Culture. Almost 100 businesses, with a particular focus on underrepresented business owners, were supported to access £200,000 total funding to organise their own cultural projects around the themes of Climate Action, Celebrating Diversity and Protect the Place We Love.  

The impact

Around 100 creative industries businesses were supported across these programmes, with outcomes including job creation, new products and services and increased turnover. We supported creative businesses and freelancers who joined the SHAPESLewisham platform, which is a network of over 300 creative businesses and freelancers across the sector and the borough.  

In terms of small, independent businesses, over 600 businesses were engaged during Lewisham’s year as Borough of Culture. Almost 100 businesses received grant funding to deliver cultural events and activities, with an expected total attendance in the tens of thousands.  

Our projects have helped to cement Lewisham’s status as a key hub for the creative industries. By supporting the council to engage meaningfully with creative businesses, we have helped to create a welcoming environment and infrastructure for the sector to thrive.   

We have helped to ensure that the CEZ and Borough of Culture initiatives have been successful and maximised the benefits for creative businesses and independent small to medium-sized enterprises. We have supported business owners across the borough to celebrate their culture and diversity, which for many businesses is the root of their success.  

By engaging proactively with businesses including in person visits, we have helped to ensure a more representative cross-section of businesses have received support through council-funded programmes, driven by ambitious targets around engagement across demographics.  

How is the new approach being sustained?

These projects have helped Lewisham Council and Goldsmiths to build an ongoing relationship with local businesses and the cultural and creative infrastructure across the borough which will help to ensure this approach is sustained. 

Throughout the pandemic both organisations and local stakeholders have been working closely with small independent businesses in a way that didn’t previously exist. Businesses tended to deal with council enforcement teams, but the distribution of pandemic recovery grants has developed more constructive relationships with businesses across the borough.  

We also helped to develop a meaningful sense of community among the businesses in our network, including connecting creative businesses with non-creative businesses, through which we hope to see further collaboration in the longer term.  

The relationships we have helped build between businesses and key organisers in the borough will also embed sustainability. For example, our work with the team behind Lewisham People’s Day to identify opportunities for creative and independent businesses to feature at what is one of London’s largest free festivals, seeing around 30,000 attendees. Similarly, we brokered a collaboration between the Albany Theatre and its neighbouring businesses in Deptford to introduce special offers for ticketholders. 

Nationally, our intention is to work with other councils and relevant stakeholders to share learnings and best practice from the CEZ and Borough of Culture, such as future awardees of Borough of Culture, City of Culture and more. Through this we aim to help ensure that creative and independent businesses feel the full benefit of these publicly funded cultural activation initiatives.  

Our Civic University Agreement (CUA), launched in October 2021, also provides a framework through which to develop and sustain these initiatives. The CUA is an ongoing strategic initiative that will play an important role in cementing the legacy of Lewisham’s Borough of Culture year, and the ongoing sustainability of Lewisham’s creative sector.  

Lessons learned


Tom Steer, email: [email protected] and Anthony Crowther, email: [email protected].

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