Skip to main content

Traditional Crafts

Volume 494: debated on Thursday 25 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Watts.)

I know that Members are anxious to get away and enjoy the lovely evening, so I will not delay us any longer than necessary. However, I do believe that traditional crafts in this country have had very little air time, so to speak, on the Floor of the House, and I would like to try to put that right.

Outside the workshop of Mike Turnock, who lives in Whaley Bridge in my constituency, there is a shelter that is evidently home to a community of toads. That is not the purpose of the shelter, however. It is also where Mike keeps his pieces of 5 ft long, 4-by-4 beech wood—the raw material for his family business, which he inherited from his father. Mike takes the beech and, using a band saw, cuts it into strips of about 5 mm thick. He chamfers each end of the strip and places it into a steam bath. This homemade device, powered by the electric elements from four kettles, makes the beech supple and mouldable. Once the beech has been steamed and dried, he bends it around a jig built to his exact requirements so that the ends of the strip overlap significantly. The ends are then nailed into position in an adept and professional manner, using nails of exactly the right length, and the base of a garden sieve or riddle has been created. He then drills the requisite number of holes around the entire perimeter of the riddle, half in a horizontal plane and half perpendicular. These are the basis for the weaving of the sieve itself from steel wire. By the time the web has been created, assisted again by custom-made tools, everything has been finished off safely with no projecting ends and a rim has been placed around the outside of the sieve, it has taken him an hour’s work.

What Mike has created is a common or garden soil sieve, the like of which may be found in garden centres up and down the country. These are beautiful objects: they are rugged, good to hold, efficient and long lasting, and just so much nicer than the plastic equivalents that so many gardeners use today. In his father’s day there would have been three or four men working in this workshop, and two or three similar workshops not too far away, but not today.

The garden sieve is not the only type of sieve that Mike Turnock makes. He makes larger ones and smaller ones, ones with larger meshes and with finer meshes, and ones designed for separating cockles or shrimps from seawater or even rivets from sand in the Sheffield casting industry. The finest grade sieves are actually easier to make because the smaller mesh is bought in ready made from China. The finest food grade sieves also have their own demands from industry.

I must declare an interest: my mother is now the proud owner of a garden sieve that Mike gave to me on the occasion of my visit to his workshop. Hon. Members may purchase their own from certain garden centres, although the supply is far less than potential demand, as Mike is the only person left in the country making these handmade sieves as far as I know. He only supplies garden centres in two regions of England.

When Mike took on the business from his father, it was a going concern. It still is today: he is making a living and evidently loving it. After a few lean years caused by illness, he is now back in full production again. But Mike is 64. He and his wife are now looking to retirement and there is no one left to carry on this business, despite the potential that exists for increasing sales.

The same is true just down the road in Sheffield at the last handmade scissor makers in the country. Other craft skills are in equally short supply, which is ironic at a time when premium products such as these can sell on the basis of their quality and command a good price. Perhaps fortunes cannot be made, but livings certainly could be made from an expansion of these industries.

Indeed, figures produced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport actually support what I am saying: there are 157,400 registered creative businesses in this country, and they have growth rates faster than the economy as a whole. The Crafts Council recently launched its “Crafts Blueprint” for creative industries, and said:

“New research undertaken by Creative & Cultural Skills has identified that craft generates almost £3 billion to the UK economy each year making it the fourth biggest sector”—

within the creative industries—

“after design, performing arts and music…Given that over 80% of the sector comprises small businesses employing 1-5 people, improving skills is essential to ensure this growth continues in the coming years.”

It went on:

“The craft sector has one of the highest employment growth rates (11 per cent.) in the creative and cultural industries (according to DCMS between the years 1997-2006) and the demand for craft skills has never been higher. Expanding entry routes into the sector, diversifying the workforce and enhancing leadership and professional development are some of the main recommendations in the Blueprint.”

In the same press release, Rosy Greenlees, executive director of the Crafts Council, said:

“The Crafts Council is committed to making the UK the best place to make, see and collect contemporary craft.”

Why did she refer to contemporary craft? It would be wrong to exclude the traditional crafts that organisations such as the Heritage Crafts Association seek to conserve. The craftspeople concerned include the sieve maker, the rake maker, the handmade cutlery maker and others. They do not necessarily make objects of beauty or of stunning magnificence, which seems to be the focus of the craft-based media, but functional, traditional objects that require just as much skill to make as well as requiring a true sense of heritage and basic human purpose. The arts media and crafts media seem fixated on the idea of arts and crafts, and on linking the two together. I want to make the distinction. I have nothing against arts—not at all—but they should not subsume the crafts in that definition.

The Heritage Crafts Association was set up by, among others, my constituent Robin Wood, a pole-lathe bowl turner. The organisation believes that recognising the living heritage of skills offers great opportunities for education, community involvement and jobs and can even play a significant role in the tourism industry. However, what do the Craft Council and DCMS mean by the creative industries? Generally speaking, they mean the arts, the media and culture. They mean the conservation of buildings, artefacts and historical traditions. They even include—I very much welcome this—traditional skills related to the building trade, such as the production of lime mortar, stone roofing, thatching and stone walling. The National Trust, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund have even created apprenticeships to ensure that those skills are retained so that their precious buildings can be conserved. I do not use the word “precious” pejoratively. They are precious buildings, and those skills need to be preserved to ensure that such buildings can be maintained in the best possible condition. However, it is the other crafts—those that deal with useful tools that man has evolved over 1,000 years—that I am interested in today.

Outside the field of construction, support for such crafts is not what it could be, which is why people such as Mike Turnock cannot find the funding to take on an apprentice or someone to learn the trade and work with him long enough to take over his potentially flourishing business and expand it in the future, retaining his wonderful craftsmanship in our community.

We all know someone called Smith, Turner, Potter, Fletcher, Barker, Cartwright or even Thatcher. Those were the names originally given to those people who founded the crafts heritage in this country. In 2006 the UNESCO convention stated:

“Any efforts to safeguard traditional craftsmanship must focus not on preserving craft objects—no matter how beautiful, precious, rare or important they might be—but on creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds, and to transmit their skills and knowledge to others, especially younger members of their communities.”

The goal of the UNESCO convention is to safeguard traditional craftsmanship by supporting the continuing transmission of knowledge and skills associated with traditional artisans, to ensure that crafts continue to be practised in their communities, providing livelihoods to their makers and reflecting creativity and adaptation. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister why, when 107 countries from Albania and Algeria through to Zambia and Zimbabwe have seen fit to sign up to the convention, effectively making intangible cultural heritage part of their cultural policy, the UK is not one of those countries?

I want to turn for a moment to the Heritage Lottery Fund. It recently announced that 10 projects would benefit from a £7 million training bursary scheme. The projects involve archaeology, transport heritage, conservation volunteers, reed and sedge cutting and other schemes to help conserve things that are already there. It is very difficult to find examples of Government or lottery funding being used to create things from scratch or regenerate the skills that, like sieve making, are in danger of being lost.

In High Peak, I have not only that last sieve maker but Robin Wood, who tells me that he is the last professional pole-lathe bowl turner in the country. Both crafts have been established for more than 1,000 years, but it is difficult to see how they will survive even one more generation. The Crafts Council has recognised this problem, and I have referred already to the blueprint that it produced with Creative and Cultural Skills, which was launched recently in the other place. In it, the council points out that many of the craftspeople involved in cottage industries are elderly and without successors to whom they can pass on their skills. In addition, many are sole traders, with little incentive to take on an apprentice without external funding.

Many of these traditional skills are often referred to as “rural”, but in fact they are urban as well. An example of that is the scissor makers of Sheffield, to whom I have referred and on whose behalf my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) has campaigned.

It seems that only once these crafts are dead do they come under the remit of the heritage industry, as their products find their ways into museum displays and people take pride in their conservation and celebrate their memory. Why can we not give the same attention to the ailing small industries that create these iconic objects? Are not the skills as worthy of conservation as the products that they create? We assess the relative importance of protecting, preserving and finding new life for older buildings that we see as part of our heritage: why should we not take a similar approach to heritage craft skills, and allocate a budget to do so?

I know that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has rightly welcomed the Government’s announcement of the £1.1 billion future jobs fund, and the positive impact it will have in the field. I know that, among other things, the fund will pay for 5,000 apprenticeships in the creative industries. I know that the wider creative industries are a huge source—and potential future source—of income for this country, as well as generators of employment. I also know that helping a single-person business to keep going from one generation to the next is not the sexiest part of the DCMS agenda, but it is vital.

Making garden sieves is not going to bring this country out of recession, but it is a part of our tradition and it ought to have a future. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us exactly how she will support the forgotten parts of the world of creative industries in the future.

The responsibilities of DCMS include sport as well as culture, and I am sure that the Minister will not need to ask the Minister for Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), about where some of the nicknames that we give to our football clubs have come from. However, let me remind her of the Blades in Sheffield, the Cobblers in Northampton, the Saddlers in Walsall, the Hatters in Luton and the Silkmen just across the hills from me in Macclesfield.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take up the spirit of the UNESCO convention that I mentioned. I ask her to put on record not whether she will be backing to the hilt these small businesses in the creative field, but how she will do so.

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on securing this debate about one of Britain’s lesser known but still extremely important craft skills? As some hon. Members may know, no serious gardener, anxious to keep his or her soil in good tilth, would be without a good quality riddle—and, as my hon. Friend has made clear, should they be in need of one, his constituent Michael Turnock is just the man to supply it.

Mr. Turnock and his one-man riddle-making business in Whaley Bridge are well known locally for their high-quality products. His skills have also attracted national interest, and that makes it all the more sad and surprising that, so far, Mr. Turnock has failed to find anyone who wants to take over his business, despite the efforts of Mr. Robin Wood, who has done a great deal to popularise crafts and to make everyone, including the Government, aware of their situation.

However, Mr. Turnock’s story is, unfortunately, all too familiar. Mechanisation and new materials have taken over the labour-intensive and time-consuming processes required to make one particular type of tool by hand. In fact, estimates made in 2004 suggested that, along with Mr. Turnock’s, only six businesses in England still make that sort of craft product—three horse collar makers, two besom broom producers and one oak spale basket maker. I think that my hon. Friend mentioned another maker, and I shall get that product from him after the debate.

The picture is not much brighter even among better known crafts such as thatching, saddling or timber framing, where the number of people employed totals little more than 1,000. If as Mr. Turnock and others insist, craft products are in high demand, all that is missing are trainees or apprentices willing to take up placements in craft-based firms—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)),

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Watts.)

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak outlined some of the Government schemes to help single-person businesses, such as Mr. Turnock’s, to attract and keep apprentices. For once—unusually—funding is not the problem. There is funding around, and there are a lot of courses; what we lack are people of any age who want to take up placements or apprenticeships in craft firms such as the one Mr. Turnock runs.

There are obviously many reasons for that situation. Sometimes, it is down to young people not being able to see a clear career path. Sometimes, it is because a person does not want to be a sole trader, or part of a small business. Sometimes, it is because younger people want to experience the bright lights of the cities, and craft trades tend to be in rural areas. Sometimes, it is just because people do not know that the opportunities and jobs exist, which is one of the areas where the Government can help—locally, regionally and centrally.

Overall, not many craftspeople have the time, or even the finance, to advertise what they do and to attract apprentices. It is a Catch-22 situation. Both the Government and the sector are very aware of the problems. This month, Creative and Cultural Skills published a crafts blueprint, to accompany and amplify the cultural heritage blueprint, which is a work force development plan designed to improve participation in the traditional skills sector. The success of recent television shows such as “Victorian Farm”, as well as the 20-year waiting list for allotments in some areas, indicate real popular interest in sustainable traditional practices, which could lead to an appreciation of the time and care taken to produce quality hand-made items such as Mr. Turnock’s riddles.

The UK is blessed with an extraordinarily wide variety of traditions and crafts. Coupled with increasing awareness of the economic, social and environmental impact of our current life styles on the health of our planet, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional crafts and practices. We are seeing a revival of traditional crafts such as carpentry, knitting, crocheting, quilting and tatting, as well as an increase in the number of craft magazines and programmes. New technology makes some crafts easier and opens up a new and much wider market for quality hand-made products made by people such as Mr. Turnock.

The Crafts Council supports Mr. Turnock’s work, and the work of all the other people in the sector. The council organises events to showcase crafts. English Heritage helps to fund the very popular heritage open days and festivals of archaeology, which as well as opening up buildings to the public also promote traditional crafts and activities.

Crafts, as a skill, fall under several central Government Departments. The Department for Communities and Local Government is very keen on them because it believes that maintaining traditional skills in a community helps to define and shape local identity. It knows that a shortage of skilled people can hold up planning applications for historical buildings. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment published its “Skills to grow” report in partnership with 15 national bodies, including Lantra, which is the sector skills council for the land-based sector that focuses on horticultural green-space skills.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is responsible for sector skills councils such as CABE. It provides a great deal of support for small businesses that are involved in craft areas. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and its agencies, Natural England and the Forestry Commission, are supporting traditional skills through their rural development programme. My Department, through its non-departmental public bodies and the lottery, shares those common interests and backs the projects. For example, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded more than £446 million to 1,300 projects that have delivered heritage skills training in not only blacksmithing, textiles and paper conservation, but traditional building skills, such as using lime mortar and dry-stone walling. Its £7 million bursary programme for on-the-job training in 10 areas in which it has found evidence of a shortage of crafts has helped to train new masons, hedge layers and millwrights.

My hon. Friend will be aware that English Heritage published the second “Heritage at Risk” report yesterday. Its finding confirmed the need for such skills locally and regionally. That is why English Heritage has been working with ConstructionSkills and the national heritage training group to address some of the shortages in traditional building craft skills. It is also why it has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the all-party arts and heritage group on maintaining standards and best practice in the built heritage sector.

I am glad that Arts Council England is also involved. It will spend more than £6 million this year alone on organisations involved in contemporary or heritage crafts, including by giving funding of £2.8 million to the Crafts Council to lead on contemporary crafts.

My hon. Friend talked about an international convention on crafts. I believe that he was referring to the 2003 convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage. The Government have no plans to ratify the convention, but we are supportive of its aims and spirit. We are keen that the rich intangible cultural heritage of the United Kingdom is properly valued and, when necessary, preserved. However, we are wary of legislating on such a sensitive matter as culture, especially in an area such as intangible heritage which, by its very nature, is difficult to define. Ratifying the convention and setting out strict definitions of what our intangible cultural heritage is, and might be, could be constricting and controversial. For example, there are issues surrounding languages and dialects in the devolved Administrations and in Cornwall.

Whether tangible or intangible, however, our heritage is a marvellous asset that we want to protect and nurture. As a Regional Minister, I see a role for the regional development agencies and local authorities. They need to play their part, along with central Government and non-departmental bodies, in ensuring that our traditional skills are upheld and preserved.

We do not want to preserve things for their own sake; we want to preserve them because of what they add to our country and to what it has to offer. As Minister with responsibility for tourism, I know how much that offer is worth to our economy every year. I also know how important it is to get people involved. My hon. Friend may or may not have heard of the recent phenomenon of yarn bombing: think Banksy meets the women’s institute. It is guerrilla knitting in the public realm. Its legality is still uncertain, but its creativity is not. It is a wonderful example of a centuries-old tradition being made relevant for today. I hope that we can offer an opportunity to uphold the heritage that men such as Mr. Turnock have preserved for us, and can make that heritage relevant and accessible to everybody.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.