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UK Research Centre for Ceramics

Volume 636: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2018

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

I am grateful to have secured this debate. This is an exciting time for the manufacturing industry, and particularly so for ceramics. In raising a debate on the Adjournment, I follow in the footsteps of Ida Copeland, my illustrious Conservative predecessor as a Member for Stoke-on-Trent, who in the 1930s handed a trayful of ceramic ware around the Chamber and invited Members to guess which pieces were made authentically in Stoke-on-Trent and which were imported knock-offs.

I am sorry to say that I do not have a tray of chinaware for Members to inspect tonight, but that is because the goods I want to talk about have yet to be researched, designed, realised and put into production. It is also worth saying that not enough of the ceramics in our public buildings these days are actually made in Stoke-on-Trent.

It is true that British makers, our manufacturers, are leading the way in realising the new economic opportunities open to global Britain, with output and exports both on the rise. The Library informs me that the UK ceramics industry—in which I include the manufacture of refractory products and bricks, tiles and construction products in baked clay—contributed £824 million to our national economic output in 2016, up from £566 million in 2009. In real terms, the industry’s economic contribution has increased by 44% since 2009.

Meanwhile, according to the British Ceramics Confederation, the global market for ceramics totals more than $150 billion per annum. UK-based ceramics manufacturers’ exports have grown by 6% since 2011, to about £410 million in 2016. However, the BCC calculates that if the UK ceramics manufacturing sector is to maintain its share of the global market in the coming years, the industry’s sales must grow by 9% a year. Let me be clear: that is 9% growth just to stand still.

The sector’s ambition goes much further than just treading water in the international pool. It is confident that if we embrace the opportunities presented by the advance in technical ceramics, annual growth of 15% is possible, with an annual £1.5 billion of gross value added from ceramics possible by the mid-2020s. My ambition is to see £1 billion annual GVA from ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent alone.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reference to the excellent work that the BCC does. In that same vein, will he put it on record this evening that, when we leave the EU, he will be supporting the efforts that Labour Members will be making when the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill comes back to this House to support the amendments coming from the BCC to protect those manufacturing bases from, as he says, cheap, knock-off imports?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I agree that there is a need to ensure that our industries are protected, and the Trade Bill and the customs Bill, which he cited, provide an opportunity to do that. I would like to see a continuation of measures that we have seen in the EU—a continuation of those trade remedies that would ensure that the ceramics industry continued to receive those protections.

I wish to set out two key arguments. The first is that a UK research centre for ceramics is a vital addition to global Britain. The second is that, obviously, such a research centre should reside in the global home of ceramics, Stoke-on-Trent. Why do we need a research centre? For thousands of years, ceramics have been valued for their unique properties of durability, strength and resistance to corrosion. Thanks to hundreds of years of technological advances in ceramics manufacture, we now, regrettably, take for granted the affordability and ubiquity of ceramic products.

I asked the hon. Gentleman beforehand whether he would agree to my intervention. Does he agree that there is a need to keep alive the skills and the lessons he referred to, which have been handed down through generations, so as to ensure that those with an interest and desire to learn this beautiful, wonderful ability can access the tools and know-how to do so? Does he further agree that although it is wonderful to have the worldwide web at our fingertips and all the information it holds, there is something to be said for having the clay in your hands and the skills to mould it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point and I totally agree that it is incredibly important that those skills come through. I have spoken to people from a number of businesses in my constituency, and they need more of those skills coming through, because we have the jobs and opportunities needed to absorb them. It is incredibly important, therefore, that we continue to see those skills coming through, and this research unit is about part of that.

We are all familiar with household ceramic goods, both functional and ornamental, but the ceramics sector is much wider than just the market for household goods. Increasingly, advanced and technical ceramics are being used across the global economy: thermal barrier ceramic coating is used in jet engines; ceramic armour is used in the defence industry; ceramics are used in semiconductors needed in electronics; bio-ceramics are making important advances for the medical sector, in operations and, in particular, prosthetics; solid oxide fuel cells are radically benefiting the energy market; and in the world of digitalisation and virtual reality, the concrete reality of ceramics still reigns, including in digital printing materials. We need to make sure that global Britain leads this industry—that it is our nation and Stoke-on-Trent that harness the power of the 21st century ceramics revolution. Global Britain should not be saddled with a £900 million annual trade deficit in ceramics, given that the products we make are the best in the world.

A UK research centre for ceramics would be a magnet for research, skills and design talent. It would support and expedite the journey from inspiration and early-stage research, right through to fully commercialised products and processes. It would be the go-to place for firms seeking to source and exploit the latest ceramic technologies.

Currently, the UK lacks the R&D infrastructure for seamlessly researching and exploiting the range of novel sintering technologies. That cannot go on. Sintering is the process of using heat or pressure to compact materials such as clay without the risk of liquefaction, which would destroy the material completely. It is a process that has long required a high level of expertise. Now, with advanced sintering—flash sintering—revolutionising the industry’s ability to transform the properties of input materials, and using significantly less energy across the process, we stand at the threshold of a new era of high productivity and exceptionally fine goods.

To be globally competitive, we need to provide the environment to facilitate that process, not least in respect of Stoke-on-Trent’s Lucideon, the development and commercialisation organisation that specialises in materials technologies and processes and is leading the sintering revolution. This is not about picking winners; it is about unlocking the doors for winners to walk through.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. As chair of the all-party group on ceramics, I think there is no more important issue to discuss in the House than the future of the sector—

Well, they are wrong!

What are the hon. Gentleman’s views on celebrating the work that is already being done by the Ceramic Innovation Network, which is leading in this area? It is led by Lucideon, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), and is supported by organisations such as Steelite, Churchill and Dudson—I have to get my local companies on the record—which secure more than 20,000 jobs in our great city.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. As she says, the work that the industry is doing to ensure that the skills, technologies and advances we are seeing come through is critical. We need to continue that work and to do more to ensure that the whole industry is realising this technology revolution.

A UK research centre for ceramics would house an advanced ceramics campus, which would in turn house a national advanced sintering centre to bring together world-leading higher education institutions and industry, to create a hub for UK sintering R&D. That would deliver the step change that we need in the UK’s research capacity for pioneering advanced ceramics.

A ceramics campus could also encapsulate the recently formed AMRICC—the Applied Materials Research, Innovation & Commercialisation Company—which envisages pilot lines in field-enhanced sintering, ceramic construction materials, combined process and product-batch trials, and mainstream ceramics sector processing techniques. The pilot lines are designed to boost productivity, commercialise research, encourage disruptive technologies and, at the same time, support decarbonisation through waste-heat capture and the electrification of the industry’s considerable heat production.

A ceramics campus could be the new home for Lucideon, which is looking to expand considerably, aiming to nearly double its workforce. Together, the companies advocate the further development of specialist equipment and technicians for the benefit of the wider industry.

The ceramics campus would not be alone at the UK research centre for ceramics. It is envisaged that there would also be an international ceramics centre on the site—a hub for design, fine art and crafts, and for ceramics that would draw in designers, artists, architects and materials scientists from all over the world for expert training in the ceramics field. The ideas generated could be expected to provide some of the most eye-catching public art in history, making the research centre come alive for a much wider audience than just ceramics professionals. It would be an asset in the UK’s business tourism offer and would complement the city’s already blossoming tourism industry.

If the industry is to continue its current export success, it needs to be ready for the opportunities that will come from leaving the European Union and championing British products around the world. For this, a research centre could house an in-house ceramics sector expert in international trade. In addition, a facility for skills development, education, apprenticeships and training could keep UK ceramics internationally competitive and in high demand as the world-leader in products and technology. It is anticipated that as many as 600 people would find employment on the advanced ceramics campus directly, with several thousand jobs created in ceramics start-ups and spin-outs, and through the expansion of existing enterprises throughout the wider industry.

So why Stoke-on-Trent? It is the only natural home for a UK research centre for ceramics—it is the home of world ceramics and globally renowned potteries. Indeed, the plans and calculations for a research centre for ceramics are predicated on that centre being based on regenerated brownfield land in the city. The site would become a ceramics park, and would coincide with other developments that are coming to make Stoke-on-Trent a city that is truly on the up: development investment and civic renewal; a cultural renaissance including the British ceramics biennial; the BBC’s “Great Pottery Throw Down”; and our oh-so-nearly successful bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021. Historic England has announced a heritage action zone in my constituency to enhance our local industrial heritage and give it a commercial future, particularly through gains from the visitor economy. Massive transport investment is planned, including HS2, roads, wider rail and the rebirth of our city’s historic canal network.

No other city is better placed for access to the major cities of both the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine, not to mention international markets, with four international airports within an hour’s drive of the city. Both the BCC and Lucideon are already based in Stoke-on-Trent and, despite the truly shocking roll call of major names lost under the Blair and Brown years, the Potteries are still home to a huge number of world-leading brands in the industry, such as Steelite, Portmeirion, Burleigh, Wade, Dudson, Duchess, Churchill, Dunoon, Ibstock, Johnson Tiles, Emma Bridgewater and Wedgwood. Those are aside from the array of smaller-scale producers across the city tapping into and enhancing our identity as the place to be for ceramic artists and craftspeople.

The industry is also a massive draw to the city, with a burgeoning tourism sector focused around ceramics from the iconic Gladstone Victorian Pottery Museum to the award-winning World of Wedgwood, which I am pleased to inform the House has recently won the VisitEngland gold accolade. Stoke-on-Trent is home to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, housing the world’s largest collection of British ceramics.

Staffordshire University has a strong legacy with the institutions from which it was formed; the colleges of art, which came from across the Potteries, trained the likes of Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper. The university has been awarded £200,000 to support growth and innovation in the ceramics industry from the Higher Education Funding Council for England catalyst fund. Partners include the BCC, AMRICC, Lucideon and Wade Ceramics. Although that goes a significant way, and there is much that our city can give, there is still much that our city needs in support. Our record on social mobility is not good enough, our educational outcomes lag behind, we are not yet matching the productivity rates of our competitors, and, despite recent herculean efforts to improve, we still do not have enough of the high-skill, high-value jobs that a world manufacturing centre should enjoy.

Historically, the ceramics industry has provided women with opportunities that other industries have failed to provide. Today, the name of Emma Bridgewater is well known, and so too are the names of artists such as Anita Harris, Emma Bailey, Susan Rose and Denise O’Sullivan. Over the past century, there were many more famous woman potters, including Charlotte Rhead, Clarice Cliff, Edith Gater, Susie Cooper and more. We need to encourage more great names of the future. I am grateful to the Crafts Council for highlighting the fact that the numbers of students taking ceramics bachelor degree courses, and design and technology GCSEs, have reduced significantly in recent times. By enhancing and signposting the clear high-value career paths of the ceramics industry, it is hoped that a future ceramics park will encourage a much greater take-up of courses and get more of the skills that people need back into this growing sector.

As well as opening up careers for all in manufacturing and art and design, the ceramics industry offers career paths in everything from marketing to accountancy, and from information technology to customer services. It is, as the Ceramic Skills Academy says, an industry full of opportunity, and this fits very well with the industrial strategy.

I am particularly delighted to let the Minister know that the ambition for the UK’s research centre for ceramics, based in Stoke-on-Trent, has been tested against all 10 pillars of the Government’s modern industrial strategy. It will manifestly invest in science, develop skills and provide training opportunities. In terms of upgrading infrastructure, the ceramics park will convert a brownfield site into a thriving, publicly accessible research park. Businesses will be supported to grow and start up, ensuring that research and development is commercialised to the advantage of the UK firms on and off site. A research centre will help the industry to ensure that public sector procurement processes recognise the excellent benefits from UK-manufactured ceramics products. The ceramics park, equipped with an international trade expert, will encourage trade and inward investment. Through heat capture and other technologies, the park can deliver affordable energy and clean growth. It will be directly connected to the new district heating network.

The ceramics park will cultivate the UK’s ceramics sector and help to restore it to the health that it has previously enjoyed in some of the sub-sectors that have suffered acute decline. By strengthening the industrial cluster of ceramics in and around the Potteries, the ceramics park will be hugely beneficial in rebalancing our country’s economic geography. Finally, the ceramics park will bring together in one place the institutions and sectoral innovators that the UK’s ceramics sector needs to face the future as a dynamic contributor to a global Britain.

My appeal to the Minister is that he helps us to deliver this ambitious and exciting vision. In the short term, support is needed to develop and fully specify the proposals for the ceramics park in line with the process for similar centres of excellence supported by the Government. There will be a need for limited funding from Whitehall to support such things as infrastructure, but that will in turn leverage much greater investment locally and nationally from businesses, public bodies and academic institutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) has previously corresponded with the Department about the early stages of this vision. I was delighted that a ministerial response in November last year spoke of “active consideration” and “an initial response”, assuring us that

“it is pleasing to see the Ceramic Sector being so positive about the future opportunities.”

I would be grateful for an update on the Department’s welcome input and its intent.

I want Stoke-on-Trent to be a city for ideas, ambition and achievement. I want Stoke-on-Trent to enjoy a £1 billion a year ceramics economy, and for our visitor economy to be boosted with ceramics-related and ceramics-inspired tourism. It is a UK research centre for ceramics, based in Stoke-on-Trent, that can make my dream come true. It can unlock our true potential for innovation and success, giving us a competitive edge internationally. I look forward to the Minister’s support tonight.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this debate. I congratulate other Stoke-on-Trent Members on their carefully crafted interventions, and I paid particular attention to the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ceramics. Despite various party political comments with which I could take umbrage, it is right that most of this discussion is really of a cross-party nature, and I shall attempt to respond to the debate in the same way. As far as my constituency is concerned, I suppose that the only interest I have to declare, without having a pottery, is that I do have Harry Potter—that is about the nearest to it. [Interruption.] Mr Deputy Speaker, you are not supposed to laugh at these jokes; Mr Speaker might get to hear.

The Potteries have made an enormous contribution to this country, but we should not simply recognise the ceramics sector for its role in the country’s industrial past, as it is very much a linchpin of today’s modern UK manufacturing economy. There is significant potential for it to increase its contribution to our industrial landscape. I accept—this point was very eloquently made by my hon. Friend—that we should be doing all we can to help the ceramics sector to continue to thrive and grow, because things move on.

Ceramics has become a vital part of the supply chain for a range of advanced manufacturing sectors, including electronics, aerospace, automotive and healthcare, so we do not take it as just one industry on its own. That is very important. I pay tribute to Laura Cohen who, if she is not here, I suspect is hiding somewhere. I was speaking outside the Chamber to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who remembers her very well from when he was in government, so he has a long memory. She is clearly a very effective lobbyist for the organisation that she works for, and I know we all respect that.

With regard to the industrial strategy and the ceramics sector, we know that just short of 9,000 people work in the ceramics sector in Stoke and Staffordshire—a concentration just over 22 times greater than the national average. The Government’s industrial strategy White Paper, which we published at the end of November last year, recognised the ceramics cluster based in north Staffs and the leadership shown by local partners across industry, education and local government in working together to target growth in this important sector. Clusters are a major contributor to growth. The McKinsey report commissioned by Centre for Cities identified 31 economically significant clusters in the UK. These clusters contain only 8% of the UK’s businesses but generate 20% of the country’s output. The Government are therefore committed to ensuring that the ceramics sector continues to go from strength to strength. The White Paper highlighted our ongoing support for sector deals.

Stakeholders have welcomed our proposals to extend this successful model of collaborative working on sectors. My job is to deal with most of those sectors and to encourage those that have not come forward with proposals to do so. A number of sectors have signalled their interest in developing a sector deal. I welcome the proposal from the ceramics sector for such a deal. My officials have provided initial feedback, and I know that the sector is responding positively. The White Paper sets out criteria that sectors should consider when formulating their proposals. We have to strike the right deal: one that is balanced between the asks of Government—typically around skills, cost reductions and so on—and commitments from the sector, and one that will have a real impact on productivity for these industries. I look forward to opening formal negotiations in the coming months with sectors that meet these requirements and have submitted ambitious proposals for a sector deal with the Government. As part of that, I look forward to working with the ceramics sector.

My hon. Friend mentioned the proposed UK research centre for ceramics. I thank him and others who have sent me the details about the ceramics park, called “A deal for ceramics in the UK”, which is extremely interesting—particularly the picture of the giant Grayson Perry pot. It will be a pleasure to pass it on to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your night-time reading this evening—or whenever you choose to do it.

Investment in our science, research and innovation base is critical, as I have said. In 2016, we announced a £4.7 billion increase in R&D investment between 2017-18 and 2020-21. We have also committed to raising investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, which is the biggest-ever increase in public funding of R&D. The EPSRC materials engineering in ceramics portfolio is currently worth just over £12 million. The ambition of the UK ceramics sector is to be at the forefront of research and innovation, and that is exactly what we want.

The ground work is already being done by companies such as Lucideon, based in Stoke-on-Trent, which is recognised the world over. It will be leading the research for the new Faraday Centre on the application of field-enhanced sintering of novel ceramic electrodes for a sodium battery alternative to lithium. Again, while that is about ceramics, it has much wider aspects for big parts of the industrial sector. It is vital that we in the UK retain such expertise, and develop the future research and design talent that will ensure that we continue to lead the world.

The sector deal proposal from the ceramics sector sets out a compelling vision of how that might be achieved via an advanced ceramics campus. We welcome the proposal set out by the industry and are working closely with the sector to explore ways in which we can ensure that the sector continues to go from strength to strength.

I love the fact that the ceramics sector deal proposal has a strong place element. The industrial strategy White Paper recognised that while the UK has a rich heritage, with world-leading businesses located around our country, some places are not fulfilling their potential. We want to build on the strong foundations of our city, growth and devolution deals by introducing local industrial strategies. We want to introduce new policies to improve skills in all parts of the country and create more connected infrastructure.

Sector deals such as this, with a strong place-based focus, have a role to play in that. That is why the aim of this ambitious proposal is welcome. It rightly recognises the need to improve productivity by addressing the commercialisation of ideas, training and skills, science and technical innovation. It also recognises the role that culture can play in regeneration and local growth.

I end by reminding my hon. Friend that we are introducing a new £115 million a year Strength in Places fund to build excellence in research, development and innovation all the way across the UK. We are working closely to deliver that with Research England. I encourage the sector deal partners to consider bidding for that when it is launched.

I wish the ceramics sector the absolute best for the future, and not only for itself and locally, because all these different aspects of its development, as I have tried to explain, have really good implications for many other sectors. I am very happy to meet Members who have contributed to the debate, and particularly my hon. Friend, if I get the opportunity to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.