Our city, Stoke-on-Trent was built on ‘pits’ and ‘pots’. The pits provided the coal, to fire the kilns, where clay became pots, in the ceramics factories which became synonymous with the city we proudly represent.
And like most industry in the ’70s and ’80s, both the pits and the pots suffered horribly at the hands of Thatcherite economic policies and rampant globalisation.
The pits didn’t survive. Coal mining is fondly remembered across North Staffordshire but collieries of yesteryear are now housing estates and business parks with no more than a nod and a wink to their former industrial heritage.
But thankfully the story is very different for the ceramic sector. Once considered to be another industry on the scrapheap, a resurgence in fortune is seeing jobs return to the Potteries where we are ensuring that the fashion for ‘made in England’ tableware is now as big as it ever was.
The ceramic sector employs over 22,000 people in the UK, almost half of which are in Stoke-on-Trent. The sector makes the same contribution to UK PLC as the fishing industry, it has a turnover of £2billion per annum and generates £600m of export sales.
Goods made in Stoke-on-Trent are found in some of the finest establishments around the world and in every corner of the globe you can find pottery with a ‘Made in Stoke-on-Trent’ backstamp.
This is why the threat of a no-deal Brexit has such huge implications for the sector, our city and most importantly our people, whose jobs who are being put at risk.
If, as reported, the Government proceeds with its plans to unilaterally remove all import tariffs on foreign made pottery and ceramics in the event of no deal, it would decimate the sector.
Currently the UK’s ceramic producers can sell tariff free into the European Union, which is where half of all exports end up.
And as a member of the European Union – and in the event that we leave the EU with a deal – the UK would still be able to sell into the markets which are most hungry for our products, such as South Korea, with no tariffs or duty through current trade arrangements.
This is vitally important for the sector as leaving with no deal would instantly add 12% to the price of our pottery. Tariffs would be applied in whichever market the goods were going and there would be tariffs on any goods imported into the UK as a result of World Trade Organisations rules. This alone would be a disaster for our industry.
However, the Department of International Trade is apparently contemplating action which would be even worse for the industry and one that would smash our ceramic sector to pieces. Under plans being considered by the Government, the UK could unilaterally remove all import duties on goods sold in the UK by applying a zero-rate tariff if we leave without a deal.
The World Trading Organisation’s rules require that unless you have an agreed free-trade deal between two countries, any variation on any tariff would need to be applied equally to any other country, meaning that the UK could not have zero-tariffs on ceramics for one country and higher tariffs for another without the backing of a free trade deal.
In order, they say, to keep trade and goods moving into the UK, the Government is actively considering removing the tariffs applied to foreign goods coming in while at the same time being helpless to insist on reciprocal arrangements being put in place for British made goods being sold to foreign markets.
This would lead, potentially, to the UK market for ceramics being swamped by poorly made, lower quality cheap imports and at the same time making domestic goods uncompetitive in overseas markets. In a stroke of a pen, the Department of International Trade could kill off one of our oldest and proudest industries.
And to achieve what? We both want to deliver a Brexit deal for our constituents but it has to be a Brexit that works for the Potteries not one that will decimate our remaining manufacturing base.