Friday 1 July 2016

The fate of ceramics in Stoke

There's an interesting article in The Financial Times today. I won't link to it, because it's behind a very heavy paywall. Mostly it's just a rehash of the news on the Steelite buyout, plus a bit about today's saving of Hudsons. But it also has a very interesting snippet from the British Ceramics Confederation. To summarise it...

   'The UK tableware industry as a whole sold £87m of goods to EU markets in 2015, of which Eire is by far our largest 'EU' market.'

That 'Eire' bit is probably significant in the longer-term, circa 2023. Since Eire may well see itself leaving the EU and joining the UK again. A newly vigorous UK that, unshackled from the dead hand of the EU, will have gone from being the world's fifth biggest economy to the fourth or perhaps even the third biggest.

In the shorter term, let's say that the UK somehow couldn't re-join the Single Market at all after June 2019. That's highly unlikely, but let's say that some crazed Eurocrats from Kamikaziia manage to scupper a trade deal, in the face of huge German and French opposition. That would mean that our goods faced an 8% to 12% trade tariff, in order for us to enter the European markets. Under World Trade Organisation rules, the EU can't stop us selling goods into Europe, only put a certain globally-agreed percentage of tariff on our trade with them.

In that worst-case situation, even that loss would surely be made up for by the lifting of the EU's crippling green regulations (effectively taxes) on the ceramic industry's energy use. Ever-growing taxes which, before the vote, looked set to kill off much of the city's ceramics industry within the next ten years. About two weeks ago The Sentinel reported of Stoke that the new energy rules... "would lead to a drastic fall in profit and the loss of thousands of jobs as the heavy clay industries struggle to meet the financial requirements".

So, worse case: a 9% tariff, but no mega-costs added to the cost of energy needed to make the pots and bricks? Sounds like a sweet deal, for a very energy-intensive industry.

But that's the worst case, and an unlikely one. Much more likely is that we do get a full trade deal with the EU once they calm down, and that it should be firming up by June 2018. In the meanwhile, we'll be set to junk the green energy taxes (which, by the way, will make almost zero difference to CO2 levels). The industry's profits should then be looking very nice, even better than the current good earnings. So I'm wondering if that's why the Americans were so keen to snap up Steelite, and why Hudsons has just been saved?

When we get out of the EU, Stoke-on-Trent's potteries would still have to abide by the world's common-sense materials rules — like, "don't put lead in the pottery glaze for breakfast bowls". But we abide by those rules anyway. That's obvious. Lead and gold might be a touch more expensive, but as for other materials... nearly all of our clay comes via train from Cornwall. News moves fast these days, but last time I looked Cornwall was not applying for EU membership.

As for Chinese dumping of cheap mugs and vases into the UK market, our MP's have long been very concerned about it. So it's obviously a serious and ongoing problem, though I don't follow or understand all the ins-and-outs of it. But it seems logical to hope that we should try to include some anti-dumping measures in our new trade deals with the Far East. If that's not possible, then a newly vigorous UK would just have to have a big public-awareness and marketing campaign from circa Autumn 2018, including bold national-flag labelling of ceramics products. Once we're stepping out, public sentiment will be very strongly on the side of something like that. On current trends, our national Buy British Champion might be named 'Boris'.

Of course I could be wrong. I wrote here after the General Election that the smooth-suited Blairies would likely take back Labour and that the extreme leftists would probably flee into the Green Party. But, as things stand now with Corbyn, it's possible I was only a year astray on that prediction.

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