Stoke and the ceramic industry

When I was first elected to the Commons I was Chairman of a large quoted industrial group of companies.  In our ownership was an important part of the UK’s ceramic tile industry. The Group owned Johnsons Tiles, and Maws. We manufactured wall and floor tile. Even then we had competitive problems with the rest of the EU. Italian gas was considerably cheaper than UK gas, I was told, giving the successful Italian  competitors an edge. In more recent years the extra costs of ever dearer energy has become a bigger problem for the UK ceramics industry, like other heavy energy using businesses.

It was also true then, and now, that there was one thing even more important to a successful ceramics company than affordable energy to fire the kilns.  A growing business needs great designers, great commercial artists, great marketing to put before the architects, the house specifiers, domestic consumers and  the design consultants styles, colours and finishes they want to buy. UK ceramics has numerous great names and brands from the past. Maws were famous for their Victorian encaustic tiles which graced many a home and grand public building. Wedgwood was perhaps the greatest potter of all time, with his long career of new glazes, shapes and textures, and his ability to recreate the  best of the past in a modern idiom. In the last century Clarice Cliff, Susie Cooper and others launched homeware ranges that excited the imagination and became classics in their turn.

When I worked with managers over how to extend and improve our tiling range, my first reaction was to fall back on the old pattern books which we still had amidst  the company’s intellectual property. All those Georgian, Victorian and early twentieth century homes might want modern  versions of the tiles the factories had made when the homes were first new. Some of the glazes, shapes and designs from the Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art deco periods were particularly fine. I also asked the business to contact design Colleges to see what was stirring and if they wanted to collaborate.

The UK industry needed to automate more of its plants, drive down kiln transit times, and get better at recycling and controlling heat use. Over the years since I left much of this has come to pass.

Today, in the wake of the Stoke by election, the government should ask itself what more can be done to encourage a larger and more vibrant ceramics industry in the Potteries. Emma Bridgewater has shown that a modern entrepreneur with design flair can still establish a decent business here. Moorcroft, Waterford Wedgwood, Wade and Steelite also show what can still be done. Government does need to address the issue of dear energy for this industry and others. It can also help establish the talent pool and the possible collaborations between our Commercial Design schools and the industries that need those skills.



  1. Newmania
    March 1, 2017

    Ceramics has been undergoing a mini boom whilst in the EU which has been based on tariff free exports to our European neighbours . It has additionally benefited from the EUs ability to take action on China’s unfair trading in subsidised and excess commodities
    If John Redwood has any brilliant ideas that have no occurred to the people actually in the industry my flabber would be ghasted but , it is there obscure the reality not change it
    All of this and ,perhaps worse still , the dislike of this country we have created in Europe are real and immediate threats to jobs in an area already suffering badly .
    Did the people who voted for this risk really understand what they were doing whilst immigrants were relentlessly blamed for post-industrial problems by the Mail Sun, Express and Telegraph ?
    Well I am probably an arrogant Guardian reading elitist pinko ; but I doubt it.

    Mr Redwood you own the future now. I shall be watching as will many others

    1. ian wragg
      March 1, 2017

      Utter garbage as usual.
      The main customer for our ceramics is USA, China and the Far East.
      Trade will go on after Brexit despite what you think.
      It was interesting reading the Hungarian minister say there may be civil unrest in the East European countries as their subsidies will be cut.
      Nice to know we are being taxed to subsidise our competitors.

      1. Newmania
        March 1, 2017

        The figure I have given is obviously a rough and dirty one but it was given in Parliament by a local MP.
        Our payments to the EU were barely over 1% of uk spending ( net payments ) at record high levels.

    2. Denis Cooper
      March 1, 2017

      That’s rather odd, because I read here from 2013:

      that the revival had been down more to increased exports OUTSIDE the EU.

      “… ceramics exports to non-EU countries have reversed a multiyear decline, bottoming out at £79.7m in 2009 and rising back above £100m last year.”

      And I read here:

      that in 2015 our imports of ceramic products from the rest of the EU were worth £748 million while our exports to the EU were worth only £141 million.

      One word of caution here is that the £748 million may include building bricks, that is not clear but if so that could knock it down to more like £700 million; but the point stands that this is yet another sector where we run a massive trade deficit with the rest of the EU and it would not be in their financial interest to restore tariffs.

      In fact according the second reference reimposed tariffs on their exports to us would be about £38 million, while the tariffs on our exports to them would only be about £10 million – and with such low tariffs, given as 5.1% and 6.8% respectively, it hardly seems worthwhile to even bother with them.

      I also read in the first reference that in 2012 the sector was worth £430 million, when about a quarter of production was exported outside the EU and presumably a similar proportion exported inside the EU.

    3. Anonymous
      March 1, 2017

      A lot of industries were lost whilst in the EU too.

    4. Anonymous
      March 1, 2017

      High EU energy costs too, Newmania.

  2. Mark B
    March 1, 2017

    Good morning.

    An d a big thank you to our kind host for sharing this with us. 🙂

    Government does need to address the issue of dear energy . . .

    No its does not. What it needs to do, is get rid of the ruinous Climate Change Act.


    1. hefner
      March 1, 2017

      Strong words, but do you know how much repealing the Climate Change Act would actually change your annual electricity and gas bills? Wouldn’t you consider how the electricity and gas distribution industry is presently organized? Would you consider the level of profit they make and what they distribute to their shareholders (and from which you might benefit via your pension plan)? Would you consider the differential between prices asked from industries and those asked from individuals?
      Headlines 2 or 3in high might be good to stir up the public (or some of it), but the problem, as they say, might be slightly more complicated than that.
      Have you ever considered that North Sea gas has been exploited for tens of years without any UK Government even thinking of creating a reserve fund (as the Norwegians have so successfully done)?

      As said by another contributor above, “utter garbage as usual” and frankly speaking not so often from JR but almost daily by a limited strident number of the “elite” contributors.

      1. libertarian
        March 1, 2017

        hefner ( if it is in fact you , because as you told us anyone can use your username !!!)

        All the things you state may or may not be true/useful/worth considering but have nothing to do with repealing the climate change act. All your suggestions could be acted on either way.

        So repeal the Climate change act AND change the structure of the energy industry

        I suspect you’re not hefner I think you’re LL

      2. stred
        March 2, 2017

        This government review of energy prices is very clear. Page 39 Chart 33 shows that UK industry has the highest electricity price in Europe and that tax is the lowest. This must be because of the influence of the Climate Change Act. which is more onerous than the ROW. Industrial producers are unlikely to be paying excess profits to energy companies. The ceramics industry has been able to benefit from low gas prices. Wind and solar subsidies + disruption to gas stations have to be paid for.

        1. stred
          March 2, 2017

          P43 also show the UK and Ireland, with lots of wind and gas, also have high basic electricity prices, only kept down by low tax.

          1. stred
            March 2, 2017

            basic domestic price and should be p42.

  3. David Cockburn
    March 1, 2017

    Visiting Ironbridge recently it was sad to walk past derelict kilns and tile factories. Once world class export businesses, now niche design boutiques. No doubt high costs were part of the problem but I suspect that the real weakness was on the design and marketing side.
    How did your companies get on when they requested help from design Colleges?

  4. Lifelogic
    March 1, 2017

    Just an announcement that we are moving to cheap energy (and a smaller state with less regulation too) would help confidence hugely in all manufacturing industry and the country. Nothing yet from this dithering government though. We still have slow, expensive and uncompetitive banking as well. It is very clear now that the temperature records have been fiddled by the alarmist “experts”. There is no climate catastrophe round the corner at all. All grants for the “unreliables” – lagoons, wind, PV, hydro, biofuel should be stopped now. Trump’s people will expose this massive climate alarmism fraud. Get fracking now.

    The budget shortly. I assume Hammond will continue with yet more tax and red tape increases on top of his Autumn ones, the business rates increases, the absurd tax on “some sugars”, the IPT increases, the absurd 15% SDLT rate, Hinkley C, the IHT ratting, central wage controls, HS2 and other complete big government insanities.

    Design is one thing to get right, but where you manufacture is another. The two may well be different. With digital technology manufacture design and ownership might well all be in rather different places.

  5. agricola
    March 1, 2017

    Energy cost is probably the key. Can we have a report on where we are up to in the Nimby versus the nation contest. What is the estimated volume of gas available, how long will it last, and what progress has there been in extracting it. Where is the nearest source of gas to Stoke.

    I am quite sure we have the design talent, but they need to see that there is a future in ceramics beyond it being a cottage industry.

    This is an area where government could play a useful facilitating role. So far they seem to have bowed to the ill informed nimby unwashed.

  6. Lifelogic
    March 1, 2017

    John Major said in his absurd speech the other day that “Freedom of speech is absolute in our country” so clearly he had not looked at the many and growing UK laws that restrict it. Not to mention the PC drivel pushed by the BBC and state sector types endlessly.

    Now we have more drivel from IHT ratter, punishment budget threatening Osborne who left the country with an absurdly damaging and far, far too high tax and complex system. Has the man no shame at all? Just do the decent thing and go man, like Cameron. Why anyone pays you anything to make speeches I cannot imagine.

    How to damage an economy hugely with over taxes even over the Laffer point, central wage controls, even more red tape, absurd waste, sugar taxes, IHT ratting and more central control is your speciality I suppose. Another daft socialist in the wrong party.

  7. Ian Wragg
    March 1, 2017

    With ludicrously high fuel prices,ruinous business rates and the uncompetitive living wage it’s a wonder we manufacture anything.
    But of course thats been the government intention to deindustrialise us in the name of climate change.
    Trump has the right idea. Slash foreign aid and rebuild the armed forces.

    We could do with some Trump mentality.

    1. Lifelogic
      March 1, 2017

      Indeed but we just have dithering T May. She thinks workers on company boards, gender pay reporting, the absurdly expensive Hinkley C,.more tax increases still, quarterly tax reporting and HS2 are the real priorities! What a dope she is.

  8. Mick
    March 1, 2017
    These lib/??? and other eu loving lords seem to care more about foreign nationals than our people who live in Europe, the sooner there gone the better, bring on a GE so we can have a parliament that’s for our citizens and not for foreigners

    1. Narrow shoulders
      March 1, 2017

      I wondered why they were more concerned with foreign nationals than UK citizens abroad when I heard this.

      I came to the conclusion that they were actually more worried about their nannies and cheap coffee from imported baristas than they were about EU nationals. That and cheap labour for their various business interests. It has to be pure self interest rather than ignoring UK ex-pats

      1. Original Richard
        March 1, 2017

        “I wondered why they were more concerned with foreign nationals than UK citizens abroad when I heard this.”

        I did wonder this too.

        If we make such a unilateral decision where does this leave our UK citizens against an EU decision to make life more difficult for them once negotiations begin ?

        I suppose it shows just where the HOL feel they belong and where their sympathies lie.

        I also wondered if the idea was a start in a plan to give EU nationals the vote in a second referendum.

  9. alan jutson
    March 1, 2017

    I agree.

    Expensive energy/power costs not only put our industries at a cost disadvantage, but are also taking more and more of the populations disposable income away from them.

    Likewise Council Tax, my council tax bill is now more than 30% of the basic State pension.

  10. Ed Mahony
    March 1, 2017

    Interesting article.

  11. libertarian
    March 1, 2017


    A great post , highlighting some of the issues we face.

    However, to be totally honest I really dont want the government to DO anything. I want them to STOP doing things, stop over regulating, stop creating bureaucratic log jambs, stop attacking the self employed, stop pursuing mad carbon policies and mostly STOP taking more and more in all forms of tax so that they can then “give back” their help…..

  12. l'Esprit
    March 1, 2017

    A marvellous and timely article.

    On a recent visit to Stoke, I was sad to see how far the once proud and world-leading industry had declined. I purchased a Spode blue-Italian teapot. It was made in China.

    1. hefner
      March 1, 2017

      Yea, but as advised by LL above, “with digital technology, manufacture, design and ownership might well all be in different places”, the design might be based on traditional English patterns, the pot actually made in China and the headquarters refer to a postbox in Panama, the Caiman or British Virgin Islands.
      Welcome to the Brave New World.

  13. Bert Young
    March 1, 2017

    Innovation and design is often the bedrock of manufacturing ; the German automotive industry has much to thank the contribution our School of Automotive Design has made. International in outlook and in its student body , this school has produced most of the industry’s leaders . Styling does not exist purely on the drawing board – it has to be linked closely to engineering . It was often said that if you linked British design to German manufacturing , you had the best that was available . Italian designers had a similar reputation with their flare ; it still reflects in their automotive and fashion products .

    The size of our home market has often in the past been the weakness in how we organised production ; the unit cost of a manufactured item largely depended on the volume made . Too often many items of our creativity have finished up being made elsewhere – the body scanning innovation was one such example . We are much more internationally oriented today ; common with many of our competitors our manufacturing is more global and priced accordingly . The outlook is now good and positive for us .

  14. Graham Wood
    March 1, 2017

    “Dear energy”. The sooner this government makes energy cheaper will be the day it repeals the absurd and crippling Climate Change Act, based as it is on the false and unscientific theory of AGW (man made global warming)
    This scam has been exposed for it’s deeply flawed ideological assumptions for years by real scientists.
    Flawed ideologies do not make for good politics, verifiable and real science, or for sourcing cheaper energy supplies our industries so desperately need to remain competitive.

  15. ChrisS
    March 1, 2017

    I think we could do with some firm numbers here.

    My immediate thought on reading the title of the piece was the high cost of electricity.

    However, exactly what effect does the cost of energy have on this industry as a proportion of total manufacturing costs ? I suspect it is quite small. That seemed to be the case in the steel industry when Tata started to talk about closing down in the UK, partly because of high energy costs here.

    So, for each of the leading ceramic producers in Stoke :

    What is the total value of their sales ?
    What is their overall energy costs for gas, electricity and water ?
    We can then easily calculate the proportion of the value of their sales that is taken up by energy costs.

    Then we need to know what the price per kWh of energy is in each of their leading competitor countries.

    1. acorn
      March 1, 2017

      You could try reading the Annual Report and Accounts for the companies concerned. JR’s old company is now called Norcros plc and still owns Johnson Tiles. They make top of the range Bathroom products.

      Other than that, the UK has the highest basic price for industrial electricity see chart. Gas isn’t much better.,_second_half_2015_(%C2%B9)_(EUR_per_kWh)_YB16.png

      This is not an EU problem, it is home grown. Forget wide scale “fracking” in the UK, it will fail exactly like the Selby Coalfield, prices and unsuitable geological conditions.

    2. hefner
      March 1, 2017

      The numbers (or at least some numbers) are readily available from Eurostat
      Look for “Electricity and Gas prices 2013-2015”
      It distinguishes between prices for industry and individuals.

  16. alastair
    March 1, 2017

    Glass blowing. Sadly in decline. The answer is simple enough. Kill off the myriad green subsidies, and bring back cheap energy. Shame on those who voted the current nonsense in.

  17. a-tracy
    March 1, 2017

    When I went to school near Stoke we had a pottery class as part of the art department in school, we were taught to make clay flowers by hand and throw pots as a nod to our local main employer and industry. Because I was considered academic I wasn’t allowed to take it after a year nor was I allowed to take typing and secretarial class which I ended up paying a lot of my first wages out to learn how to do after work in order to get promotion. When my very academic son wanted to take Media Studies at High School I didn’t deter him because of all the nay sayers and he still utilises all of those skills he developed in his life and work todate. We have too many adults telling children what they should study and too many universities poo-pooing new skills necessary for the modern world.

    By far the biggest mistake was the skilled craftsmen and women going out to Indonesia and other low-wage areas and teaching everyone how to do their jobs, handing over freely years of built up skills and knowledge in a matter of a year, in the mistaken belief they were expanding into new markets when all the time they were closing down potbanks at home.

    They closed workplace after workplace but they also lost their British market and loyal buyers of their figurines and bone china tea and dinner sets. In Stoke if you didn’t get a Royal Doulton tea set or full dinner service back in the 70’s and 80’s then you didn’t have someone working and relying on their living from this Industry. I admire Emma Bridgewater for keeping her workforce in Stoke and I hope she continues to do so, if she does she should get much more marketing and sales backup from the local chambers of commerce and the government’s business departments.

  18. forthurst
    March 1, 2017

    The Tory government has no interest in promoting British industry. They would much rather savetheplanet with expensive and unreliable energy; they would much rather engage in sabre-rattling with Russia than purchase its gas; they would much rather put banksters on a pedestal and give them immunity from prosecution than smash their banking cartels and bang their fraudsters to rights. The Tory party’s business model consists of importing cheap foreign labour without end to be subsidised by the taxplayer in order to claim pathetic increases in GDP.

    Brexit should be the start not the end of a patriotic government’s ambitions for our country, but there is no sign of that at all. Unfortunately, the Tory party’s ambitions do not extend beyond winning the next election.

  19. The Prangwizard
    March 1, 2017

    Those businesses of any size which remain are largely foreign owned. It’s all very well evoking our lost past but Wedgewood is now owned by the Finnish company Fiskars and Steelite is American.

    That’s where our hosts obsession with inward investment leads. It’s very hard to find UK businesses which are UK owned and managed. We only hear a one sided story about it, something of a deceit I think. I wonder how many millions of pounds are remitted abroad annually in dividend and profit – to add to the billions in foreign aid and remittances by foreign nationals.

    On the case of energy we could get fracking but as with just about everthing else which would increase productivity and efficiency like roads and airports government prefers talk and endless debate to action. Every crackpot and pressure group must be allowed their say and often prevail. Those of us who want are largely ignored.

    1. a-tracy
      March 2, 2017

      Dyson, BAE, Grant Whisky and JCB are the only large manufacturers I can think of that are still UK owned.

      1. hefner
        March 2, 2017

        That would obviously take much time, but get hold of the list of companies on the FTSE100, and if even more courageous on the FTSE350 and try to get the annual reports of these individual companies: they are usually available on the web from any good investing platform even if one is not an investor. Just reading the first few introductory pages of such reports, one can get a reasonable amount of information where the main plants/factories, main activities, HQ and possible subsidiaries are happening/based and what the financial structure is. Looking in the back pages, some information on the CEO, CFO, …, and members of the Board of Directors is available. Then decide for yourself how many British brands are still UK managed, if not owned. London might the world’s first financial place, but that does not translate into a wealth of what one could call big name British companies.
        Whether this is good or bad is for one to decide.

  20. Leslie Singleton
    March 1, 2017

    Dear John–Surprised you would admit to having had anything to do with the British Tiling industry. My attempts over the years at tiling were made much harder by what seemed to me some strange decisions on what was (not) available for sale. For a start there was of course metrification, which made any attempt to repair beautiful old tiling difficult to say the least–finding even the basic 6″ by 6″ in plain flat white was impossible. Instead there are, certainly were, all manner of larger (too large to me–less work I suppose), often rectangular for some reason, tiles which I found ugly, not to mention tiles with bumps and waves (on purpose!). I don’t like unnecessary change especially in a traditional home and to me what looks right is to have the tiling go only so far up the wall (dado) but this is now impossible because, at least last time I looked, one cannot buy edging tiles (6″ by 2″ in plain white look good) and not only that but it is not possible to buy the basic ‘Round Edge’ (RE) tiles any more so that it is literally impossible to finish an end to cover the unglazed edge eg on a window shelf. And as for proper round-edge corner tiles (RX), don’t even think about it. Vertical corner tiles on a wall corner, as needed in and out of an arch for instance, are just a far off dream. And I have made no mention of other types of more fancy tiling trim. I do realise that it is easier to tile all the way up to the ceiling, but, although easy, tiles dying in to the ceiling looks daft to me and is just a cop out. I bought most of what what I wanted from Detroit via relatives. You should see the Bathrooms in Indian Village, a suburb: absolute works of art and brilliant craftsmanship even after 100 years–and they had to use plain cement not the easy modern stuff.

  21. Denis Cooper
    March 1, 2017

    Off-topic, Jacob Rees-Mogg excoriates John Major:

    Quite rightly, in my view; Major could have put the Maastricht Treaty to a referendum, but he chose not to do so and instead forced it through the Commons on a confidence vote, which he should surely now realise was simply storing up trouble for the future.

    1. Leslie Singleton
      March 1, 2017

      Dear Denis–Major was and is a low-class act on any basis anyone cares to mention

  22. fedupsoutherner
    March 1, 2017

    The only way our energy bills are going is UP. That’s for business use and for residential use too. If you and other ministers recognise the problem with high prices then why aren’t you as a party doing something constructive and sensible? This country cannot go on listening to the dogooders wanting to save the polar bears etc when in actual fact their numbers are up. Nature will do what nature wants to and no amount of false computer data or human interference will make a jot of difference. We are selling ourselves short and bankrupting the country at the same time. For goodness sake take a leaf out of Trumps book and get Mrs May to repeal the climate change act and let’s get back to producing things at a more competitive price. I think action is needed and not words.

  23. majorfrustration
    March 1, 2017

    Alastair above mentions the glass container industry with similar problems and I wonder where the likes of Rockware RNG Co-op and UG are now. Our glass container industry was put to the sword in say the 1980s without much thought given by the politicians. Yes the various companies were slow on their feet. I’m am not sure whether much has changed – and I still have the impression that the politicians are involved in a UK Monopoly Game unware of the actions taken by them effect real people and industries

  24. ian
    March 1, 2017

    How about hiring trump to come in and sort it out in the uk because mps you have got are useless, in 2010 when the con party came to power and heard about mid staffs they like it so much they now rolled it out country wide.

  25. John
    March 1, 2017

    I wonder weather the Ceramic industry may benefit from being able to control our tariffs with China just like potentially the Steel industry may.

  26. fedupsoutherner
    March 1, 2017

    I see Laura Keunsberg has a smug smile on her face tonight after the Lords defeated the government over Brexit tonight. They obviously think foreign nationals are more important than Brits in Europe. I am already sick of the Lords and can see they will eventually overturn anything the government wants to bring about regarding Brexit. Get rid of the lot of them!

  27. Prigger
    March 1, 2017

    You know that something is wrong when more than twelve hundred elected and non-elected representatives, some wearing theatrical clothing, take nine months to sign a note saying ” I’m Leaving, we’ll talk about it when we’ve both calmed down” and the BBC spends over two days banging on about the wrong envelope of two being opened announcing the better of two movies no-one has seen.

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