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Northern Ireland could have thriving cultural quarters that could rival Covent Garden and Temple Bar if the right support is given to the creative industries, University of Ulster academics told a Stormont Committee today.

A delegation from the University urged the Northern Ireland Assembly's Culture, Arts and Leisure to push the Stormont Executive to develop an economic strategy for the creative industries that identified global as well as local market opportunities.

Professor Ian Montgomery, Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and the Built Environment told MLAs: "The creative industries generate £0.5 billion in Northern Ireland and are a larger employer than agriculture.

"This presents a major foundation and opportunity to develop employment, promote skills, and attract international investment and visitors as a creative and cultural destination. The ability of creative individuals to generate their own income is a significant advantage within the knowledge economy and, as such, presents a substantially lower risk thanothers which are dependent on complex networks which often behave erratically in changeable economic conditions.

"The creative industries offer potential to investors (animation and post-production), to tourism (galleries and museums), to regeneration (innovative architecture and urban design projects), to the community (employment in the sector), and industry (developing capacity and capability). Much of this can be successfully developed through effective partnerships between government, the higher education sector and creative industries stakeholders.

"With areas like the Cathedral Quarter and Titanic Quarter in Belfast, there is an opportunity to develop a creative ecosystem to rival Temple Bar and Covent Garden that embraces the cafe and restaurant culture and offers visitors the opportunity to go to galleries, theatres andspend money on art, designed artefacts, experiences, and to contribute to the commercial growth of the sector. However, there needs to be the proper financial support and infrastructure if the creative industries are to reach their full potential."

Professor Montgomery observed while there was huge interest amongst young people in the creative industries in Northern Ireland,the supply chain of designers, finance and manufacturing was woefully underdeveloped.

There was also alack of funding for continuing professional developmentdue to lack of funding forsustained postgraduate study at masters level. Even in creative industries regarded as economically-relevant, short-course funding to develop skills was extremely difficult to secure and did not exist in discipline-specific skills in the applied arts and design.

Opportunities for young creative people to engage with their industry through internships were also virtually impossible to secure.

"The creative industries sector in Northern Ireland suffers from lack of transparent policy and, being spread across a range of support departments,does not have a cohesive policy," he told the committee.

"For example, Design Wales is a highly effective vehicle which championsthe developmentofthe Welsh design industries.Although Northern Ireland is punching above its weight in design production most output is generated for the local market and it lacks the international ambition and business collateral to effectively sell itself beyond the UK and Ireland."

Professor Montgomery also said business skills were underdeveloped among those in the creative industries and they would benefit fromappropriateand sustained businessmentoring.

Dr Colm Murphy, Head of the University of Ulster's School of Media, Film and Journalism, told the committee Northern Ireland had the potential to be a global leader in niche areas of the creative industries but the sector needed a strategy and the resources to grasp these opportunities.

"Northern Ireland is strategically located in the middle time zone in the world between the world's two biggest markets, North America and the energing markets of China and India," he said.

"Technology allows these markets to be served from Northern Ireland if there is the correct investment in language and cultural skills and international selling expertise. We need policy plans which will forecast the major areas of growth in the creative industries in the next 10 to 15 years, so we can position Northern Ireland to take advantage of them.

"The Confucius Institute at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland's only Confucius Institute, offers the potential to develop direct links with China through our partner, Zhejiang University of Media and Communication, which is the second largest media university in the country.

"China is forecast to be the world's largest media market by 2020. This partnership can help Chinese creative media companies looking for a gateway into EU markets and indigenous creative media companies looking to develop into the Chinese market by developing contacts through staff and student placements, extended business visits and strategic networking."

The committee were also addressed by Professor Greg Lloyd, Head of the School of the Built Environment and Tim Brundle, Director of Innovation.