28 January 2022

Painting the Red Wall green

By Jonathan Gullis

Stoke-on-Trent is a textbook example of where the transition to net zero could help consolidate Conservative gains in the Red Wall. An area steeped in industrial history, associated with factories and mines, and which for decades under successive governments has been overlooked, the Staffordshire Potteries might not seem like a place where decarbonisation would be welcomed. With the Government’s plan to level up the country with a Green Industrial Revolution, however, areas like Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove, and Talke have the most to gain from net zero, as well as the most to offer.

Although the events in Glasgow for COP26 felt very far removed from Stokies’ everyday concerns, the Government’s policies to attract public and private investment to deliver net zero are a huge opportunity for my community. Ultimately, when people cast their vote at the next election, their key question will be – am I better off? Important factors in answering this question will be whether they have a good job, a clean and safe place to live, good transport links, and if their area has improved overall. When it’s affordable, fair, and tailored to local circumstances, net zero can meet some of these pressing needs, and resonate with industrial heartland voters like mine.

Although we still have some great companies locally, like Steelite and Churchill China, the decline of British manufacturing did not spare Stoke’s world-renowned ceramics industry. On top of this, it has had to face seemingly insurmountable logistical and commercial hurdles due to the pandemic. Its recovery was already threatened by the significant costs of materials and energy, but the international gas price spike may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

This would be a real tragedy for our area, which even now is so closely tied to our past as the world’s ceramics centre.

Net zero represents a chance not just for a recovery, but a future for the industry which is sustainable both environmentally and economically. The kilns that are essential for our ceramics require a lot of energy for heating, usually supplied by gas. Typically, the cost of firing these up to the necessary temperatures, sometimes above 1000°C, can reach a third of production costs. Similar energy-intensive industries tend to be based in industrial clusters, which have been supp-orted by Government initiatives to decarbonise and transition to low-carbon technologies, such as electrification or carbon capture and storage. Ceramics needs this too. With the right support to improve energy efficiency and roll out low-carbon alternatives to gas for heating such as hydrogen or electricity, the industry’s 41,000 jobs would be future-proofed, and the UK could become a global leader in low-carbon ceramics.

Some of these technologies aren’t here yet, though, and we need immediate action if we are to save the 300-year-old ceramics industry and meet our industrial climate target of a two-thirds reduction in emissions by 2035. Removing social and environmental levies from energy bills, and funding them from general taxation instead, could deliver immediate cuts to the soaring costs of running a ceramics manufacturing business during the current gas price spike.

To enable development of these technologies and deliver our net zero target, we need a workforce that has the necessary skills. Net zero industries, like the offshore wind sector, offer opportunities for job creation and industry growth, but it won’t be possible without the right training schemes in place now. By 2030 the UK will need 170,000 more workers to qualify for jobs in these industries each year.

This jobs boom could be transformational for Red Wall areas that have historically been affected by factory closures, and been dependent on carbon-intensive industries. For places like Stoke-on-Trent, the transition to a new low-carbon model could require not just new training, but extensive retraining. Government-backed ‘skills bridges’ that support retraining through targeted programmes, apprenticeships, and short-term work placements would help those who have been affected by the transition to find new work. This would complement the welcome steps the Government is already taking by including net zero and nature as priorities for local skills plans in the Skills Bill.

Linking all these benefits is the public transport that physically connects people and places. Getting this sorted will increase the number of accessible jobs, bring in investment for new businesses, and expand horizons for thousands of people. To level up public transport we have secured £29 million from the Government to improve rail and bus links across the city and are now bidding for up to £90 million under the Bus Back Better programme. Public transport is also a great example of how levelling up and net zero go hand in hand. Improving public transport will give people an affordable, low-carbon alternative to driving themselves around. With that will come better air quality, less noise pollution, and reduced congestion. 

Net zero has benefits that go beyond reducing damaging carbon emissions, it offers tangible real world rewards for areas that have historically been starved of attention. With the low-carbon transition, there is an opportunity to reignite Britain’s industrial heartlands, providing well-paid jobs, local investment, and room for social mobility for millions of people. 

Net zero and levelling up truly are the perfect match.

This article first appeared in the winter edition of Bright Blue’s Centre Write magazine, ‘Favourable Climate’  

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Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.