Local wealth building - reviving handmade tile making in the UK


In the last ten years, the influx of artists / makers moving to and setting up their studios in Thanet (where Handmade Tiles is based - the area of East Kent that is comprised of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs) has increased exponentially due to  affordable property prices and the easier work / life balance seaside lifestyle that living in Thanet has to offer. With an 84%+ growth in creative businesses and a 71%+ increase in the opening of artist's studios, Thanet has become a hot spot for highly skilled creative Londoners / out of towners to lay down roots.

 Whilst Thanet has seen some positive changes recently, it has long suffered with the highest social deprivation and unemployment rates in Kent. The demise of the seaside holiday owing to the availability of affordable European package holidays in the last fifty years hit our seaside towns hard, driving down our local industry and economy. Whilst modestly paid work is available here during the summer season, steady well paid work outside of the public sector is scarce. Government-enforced austerity measures over the last ten years has further contributed to the increasing health and wealth divide between the rich and the poor, with fewer opportunities for work, adult education and access to health services for the people of Thanet.

At the end of last year, Sarah Hopkinson (me - the owner of Handmade Tiles), went to a talk by Neil McInroy, who is the Chief Executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). Neil gave a fascinating insight into the work of CLES, which is responsible for having turned around the economies of several local authorities and towns, creating thousands of jobs for local people and developing a culture of community wealth building throughout the public and private sector in the towns the CLES has worked with. Local wealth building is achieved by harnessing the potential of existing wealth within local economies rather than relying on inward investment from multinational corporate institutions and purchasing / outsourcing goods and services nationally and globally.

Preston is one city that the CLES has worked with that has seen monumental improvements to its economy over the last decade. The CLES and Preston City Council worked with local anchor institutions (such as universities and housing associations) and local businesses, who were convinced to procure services and to spend money locally rather than outsource and purchase goods and services from outside the area. The effect of this has resulted in huge increases in local spending. Comparing spending in 2016 to 2012, £74 million more was spent in 2016 within Preston businesses and £200 million (an increase from 39% to 79% expenditure) more worth of goods and services was purchased from Lancashire-based businesses. The revenue is circulated locally, resulting in a huge increase in jobs and a self-reliant, stable and wealthier local economy that is more immune to the impact of global capitalism and government cuts.

Handmade Tiles currently designs and commissions tiles that are then handmade and imported from outside of the UK from countries which have retained their artisanal handmade tile making industries. The UK's tile industry has, on the whole, been consumed by machine made and printed porcelain and ceramic tiles which produces large volumes at low cost to both manufacturer and customer. The Heritage Crafts Association considers floor and wall handmade tile making to be at 'endangered' risk of becoming a lost skill in current handcrafting practice and to future generations within the UK. It is reported that fewer than 100 people in the UK practice handmade wall / floor tile making as their main occupation.

Inspired by the talk by Neil McInroy, I set out to consider how to implement the local wealth building model within Handmade Tiles. Handmade Tiles pays tile makers across the world to make tiles, creating work for skilled people in other countries. The huge environmental impact of shipping these tiles from overseas is also a consideration when developing a more environmentally and socially conscious business practice.  And also Brexit. The prospect of a no deal Brexit and exiting the EU single market is something UK businesses, including artists and makers here in Thanet, are having to prepare for and is a major challenge to our economy.

So in a bid to adapt to a local wealth building model, it was obvious that Handmade Tiles should approach local talent, harnessing the potential of existing local skilled artists. Handmade Tiles has spent months talking to Thanet's artists / makers about developing 'Margate Tile Makers', with the aim of reintroducing / encouraging handmade tile making as a mainstream artisanal skill locally and to meet the increasing demand of UK buyers / interior designers / architects / developers who are happy to budget for beautiful and unique tiles to be handmade for their projects. The vision is to provide regular work for local artists, to eventually be able to offer training to local people on handmade tile making and to carry this handcrafting skill on to future generations.

Margate Tile Makers has developed to be a collective of highly skilled artists and makers who are in the process of creating beautiful ranges and palettes with tiles in all kinds of alternative shapes and materials.

Margate Tile Makers will be debuting at the 100% Design show at Olympia, London in September, which Handmade Tiles has a stand at.

Look out for future blog posts featuring artists and new ranges as the Margate Tile Makers project develops.