David Proudlove's
critique of the built environment of Stoke-on-Trent


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The family Silver


The past month or so has seen Stoke-on-Trent host the British Ceramics Biennial; a great honour for the city, and a richly deserved one given the role that the Potteries has played in the industry. The festival runs until 12 November at the former Spode Works in Stoke, where the former factory floor has been utilised to host a series of events. 

The festival has received much national coverage, including a very positive review in the Guardian, and has been a great showcase for the ceramics industry, and the Potteries.



the British Ceramics Biennial at the original Spode factory
the British Ceramics Biennial at the original Spode factory


It has also been a great showcase for the Spode Works itself and its special atmosphere, and the interesting spaces throughout the site and its buildings. As visitors from all over the city, the country, and the rest of the world visit the site, it is a clear demonstration that the Spode Works could have a bright future, and play a positive role in the future of our city.

Options for Stoke Town
Options for Stoke Town


Or does it?

Stoke-on-Trent City Council completed the purchase of the Spode Works back in 2010, with a view to helping drive forward the regeneration of Stoke Town Centre. They also appointed Manchester-based urban designers URBED to develop a masterplan for the town. So far so good.

As URBED commenced work, whispers began to emanate from the Civic Centre that a new supermarket could be developed on the Spode Works site. Denials were issued. Local people showed disquiet. But when URBED’s draft plans were put to the public, there were a number of options, one of which included a new supermarket.

Given the nature of masterplanning – which is in the majority of cases driven by landowners’ aspirations for their sites – it is clear that there is a desire from within the Civic Centre to build a supermarket on the site, quite possibly to recoup the monies expended by the City Council on its acquisition.

What is the big attraction to new supermarkets here in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire? I’m guessing that the answer is that they are as cheap as chips to build and developers and supermarket chains are willing and able to dangle large cheques in front of cash-strapped local authorities in order to fund things that may be beyond their reach in the current climate. 

The current climate. Therefore important sites and buildings can often be sacrificed for short-term gains. We’ve seen it in Hanley where Tesco were supported and encouraged to relocate to a new, larger store because they were willing to fund the completion of the Hanley Ring Road. Short-term gain for maybe long-term pain.

But does Stoke need another supermarket? Does the city need another supermarket?

North Staffordshire is swamped by supermarkets. Let’s take Tesco as an example. It has numerous stores throughout the area, from Kidsgrove to Meir, and many other places in between. It is planning yet another store at the Lime Kiln crossroads just outside Hanley, around a mile from its new megastore. That is just one chain. Welcome to Tesco-on-Trent anyone?


new Tesco site at the former Kwik Save site at Lime Kiln crossroads
new Tesco site at the former Kwik Save site at Lime Kiln crossroads

A new supermarket is not regeneration. It is property development and short-term speculation, and in the long-term, will not make a jot of difference to the sustainability of the city and its economy.

And a supermarket on the Spode Works site? Adjacent to two Conservation Areas and a host of Listed Buildings, such as the historic core of the Spode Works site itself, and Stoke Town Hall; how is a supermarket building appropriate to such a setting? We all know that supermarkets tend to look like some sort of interplanetary craft that is set for celestial annihilation and out for universal dominance. But maybe that is appropriate; universal domination sounds like the vision set out in Tesco’s latest Business Plan…

If we accept the role of supermarkets within places and their economies, and the possibility of another supermarket arriving in Stoke, in the context of the Spode Works site any developer and supermarket chain would have to accept that they would need to take a different approach to their business needs. I would issue the following challenges to anyone looking to bring forward a new supermarket within the Spode Works:

• Ensure that the proposed store is designed to the highest standards, respecting its context and adjoining buildings, such as the wider Spode Works site, and the adjoining Civic Centre – including Stoke Town Hall, Kings Hall and the cenotaph;

• Ensure that materials and colours that respect the foodstore’s surroundings and setting are utilised;

• Ensure that the proposed store is fully integrated into the wider proposals for the Spode Works site and the wider town centre, in particular the Kingsway area, through the appropriate siting of entrances, service areas, and car parking;

• Ensure that car parking does not dominate the site and its surroundings, and that car parking areas have a suitable and appropriate design strategy;

• Ensure that operating hours do not have a negative impact on achieving the wider objectives for the Spode Works site; and

• Work in a positive and proactive manner with whoever delivers the regeneration of the wider Spode Works site, particularly by buying-in to the overall vision for the site, and helping to deliver future events and the like.

What if the Spode Works came back to life?
What if the Spode Works came back to life?


The Spode Works site is special, and it deserves better. Much better.

Stoke-on-Trent is pottery. The city has been synonymous with the industry since at least the 18th century, with recorded evidence of even earlier activity. The Spode Works has played a prominent role in the pottery industry since the mid-18th century, and the majority of the buildings still standing on the site date from the early 1800s.

From its very early days, Spode was at the forefront of innovation in pottery manufacture: Josiah I is widely credited with perfecting the manufacture and successful marketing of bone china, and in 1784 he perfected the technique of transfer-printing on earthenware from hand-engraved copper plates.

The Spode Works is arguably the most important pottery site still remaining, being possibly the best example of a site that has grown organically to meet a company’s needs as opposed to have been planned in the way that Middleport Pottery was, for example. Until the firm closed its doors, Spode was the last manufacturer in the city to have still been in operation on their original site. The site and its buildings still retain a unique atmosphere, and contain some incredible spaces that could be exploited to create something spectacular.

This is why the Spode Works is special.

It is incredible that the main custodians of the city’s heritage and its proud industrial past, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, can display such an amazing degree of apathy towards it. 

The seeds of such apathy have probably been sown by the potters themselves; twenty years ago, the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England published Potworks, an overview of the city’s industrial architecture, which detailed many images, illustrations and descriptions of beautiful, long gone potworks such as the Hill Pottery in Burslem, and Fenton’s Foley Potteries, pulled down by companies looking to yield value from cleared sites whilst moving their operations to other locations in cheaper, easier to maintain buildings of little art or character, with such activity supported, and in some cases encouraged, by former and current civic dignitaries who ought to hang their heads in shame.

Some of the buildings that appear in Potworks – whilst around at the time of publication back in 1991 – have long since gone. I understand the arguments of outdated facilities, and modernisation of processes, but if the people of the industry, and our local authority, cannot appreciate and respect the city’s industrial heritage and architecture, what chance the profit-hungry monsters of the development industry?

This is not a new phenomenon though. The concerted destruction of the pottery industry’s built heritage gathered pace in the 1950s when the Clean Air Act rendered the industry’s unique bottle ovens obsolete, with the response being to tear them down.

 In the early 1970s, that renowned critic of the Potteries Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (“the Five Towns are an urban tragedy”) visited the city whilst compiling the Staffordshire edition of his tremendous Buildings of England. Pevsner was openly hostile towards the urban environment of the Potteries, and expressed particular disappointment of his trip to Wedgwood Country, Etruria:

“The one expedition any cultural traveller will wish to make is to Etruria, Josiah Wedgwood’s works built here in 1769. The trip will turn out a bitter disappointment. The Wedgwood warehouses along the canal and the Wedgwood kilns have all been pulled down by the present owners of the area…The only remaining building by the canal is a roundhouse…Only Josiah Wedgwood’s own house survives, even if extended and internally altered…From his house he could look across the landscape to the canal, inspired by him, and the works, built by him. Now that view is all desolation.”

That view today is still desolation, but a different sort of desolation: sheds and off-the-peg office buildings delivered by St Modwen; the desolation of a failing and out-dated regeneration model.

Pevsner also railed against the lack of statutory protection that the pottery industry’s industrial architecture had at the time:

“…the kilns are disappearing rapidly, which is visually a great loss; for their odd shapes were the one distinguishing feature of the Five Towns…They have a way of turning up in views with parish churches and town halls as their neighbours. As for the surviving offices and warehouses, some are quite handsome, and they will here be recorded. The DOE has not so far done that adequately. The six towns are sorely under-listed.”

That was around forty years ago; but even now in 2011, the city still has less than 200 Listed Buildings. Despite the importance of the Spode Works, it only received some protection back in 2007 when the Church Street Conservation Area was extended to include the site’s historic core, and four of the buildings were Listed at Grade II (I understand that the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder RENEW North Staffordshire opposed this; what a great surprise that is).


Too much of the Potteries’ industrial heritage continues to disappear at an alarming rate
Too much of the Potteries’ industrial heritage continues to disappear at an alarming rate


Too much of the Potteries’ industrial heritage continues to disappear at an alarming rate. In recent years we have lost the Alexandra Pottery in Tunstall – indeed hardly anything of the pottery industry remains in Tunstall – and the former Royal Doulton site on Nile Street in Burslem now resembles a scene from the Blitz. Even those that are Listed are under threat: the Falcon Pottery on Old Town Road in Hanley is fast falling down around our ears; the wonderful Boundary Works in Longton is fast deteriorating; and the Hill Works in Burslem – recently vacated by Wades and now owned by St Modwen, who also own the Nile Street site – was victim of a ‘mysterious’ fire last year. And there are many more, large and small.

We cannot allow the Spode Works go the same way as much of the city’s industrial architecture. Sites such as the Spode Works form part of the reason why people visit the Potteries. As has been laboured above, Stoke-on-Trent continues to lose its historic fabric at an alarming rate. In the past the emphasis has been on ‘islands’ of heritage isolated from a strong historic environment; a continuation of such an approach could result in a total loss of character, and consequently, of any reason to visit the city in the future. The Spode Works is still of vital importance to the city, and the way in which it is used and developed is critical to the city’s character and its position as a heritage destination.

It is thought that the City Council are considering selling off the whole of the site, and will not retain any interest at all. We cannot continue to allow the wholesale selling off of the family silver. The Potteries Family Silver.

So what are the alternatives?

Over the past few decades there has been a much greater appreciation of industrial heritage and architecture, from the huge dockland warehouses of Liverpool and the east end of London, to the famous Lancashire cotton mills. Great examples of this appreciation include the transformation of the Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s Docklands to a centre for arts and creative industries, the cultural and artistic transformation of Sir Alfred Bird’s Custard Factory in Birmingham, the community-led regeneration of the Coin Street area on the South Bank in London, and the amazing resurgence of both Ancoats and Castlefield in Manchester. 

The Potteries has its own abundance of such heritage, yet we hear talk of demolition, supermarkets and retail parks, etc., etc.

Would you expect to see an Asda superstore appear alongside the Albert Dock? Would you hear debate over the positives of Sainsbury’s locating a store alongside the Bridgewater Canal in Castlefield? I think we know the answer.

The entrance to Trinity Buoy Wharf with a reminder of its past industry
The entrance to Trinity Buoy Wharf with a reminder of its past industry
photo: bbc.co.uk


The common theme that runs through projects such as Trinity Buoy Wharf and Coin Street, is that the ‘traditional’ regeneration and development model was shunned in favour of a more organic and community-focused approach. It is clear that in the current economic climate, the usual model is broken. It will not work, and it will not work at the Spode Works. Public sector spending has all but disappeared. There is a real lack of private sector development finance available, and lenders have become far more risk averse, and a proposition such as the Spode Works – a former industrial site that includes a host of Listed Buildings, and part of which sits within a Conservation Area, would be far too risky from the perspective of banks and other financial institutions.

This may paint a very bleak picture. But for these reasons, the Spode Works is the biggest opportunity in the city right now. It presents the opportunity for the city to turn its back on the wrecking ball and rubble approach. It is THE opportunity for the city to pioneer a different model to drive regeneration; a community-led approach that forsakes short-termism in favour of a longer-term view, an approach that will allow people and businesses to lay down roots and grow organically, in much the same way that the Spode Works itself has.

The Spode Works presents the opportunity to lay the foundations for the birth of a new creative, funky and vibrant urban quarter; a stones throw from the city’s main railway station, and university and colleges, with the potential to trigger a huge creative explosion.

The future of the Spode Works could be the catalyst for the city to start thinking seriously about, and acting positively and proactively towards developing a sustainable future for ceramics, design, and associated industries in the city, taking the industries for which Stoke-on-Trent is famous into the 21st century.

I would call on the City Council to be brave; to show courage, to show some vision in respect of Spode Works and the role it can play in our city’s future. To place a vote of confidence in the site, in Stoke, in the city, and more importantly in the creative people and industries of the Potteries, and ensure that the Spode Works remains at the heart of ceramics and design in Stoke-on-Trent, and thus, on the world stage.

David Proudlove
November 2011


next: High Street Blues
previous: The future's bright...



Related pages..

The history of Spode

Neville Malkin's tour of Spode Works

Listing for the Spode Works

external links..

Invest in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

British Ceramics Biennial