The ceramics works are now heritage museums. Which would be fine, if this was part of a successful diversification of industry. But it is not. The scene is desolate, crumbling, bleak. Walking through the city yesterday, Saturday evening, there were too many boarded up and empty shops, with the only thriving retail business, the betting shop. The grocer, who serves as the local branch of Western Union, has his windows barred and meshed so that it appears more like a cop shop in Blade Runner than a place to buy your greens. The roughly-painted restaurant set up by - from what I can read of the flaking signage - a Polish couple has been closed for months. A Wetherstones pub provides a cheery change, its bulky, white, clients spilling out onto the pavement to sing football songs.
But it is the buildings I notice most. Nineteenth century brick buildings, with the carved and moulded additions that signalled ostentation, English-style, with what were once neat little sash windows and once-gay window-boxes for flowers. Now? The buildings are rotting. The roof of one - occupied, with tattered greying curtains at the windows - is curving inward, broken-backed. The brickwork on all of them - made from the clay that also fed the potteries - is crumbling. Clay is returning to clay. How long will it take? How long before this once busy town melts into the earth again?
The census - England is dilligent in charting its decline - tells us what is happening here. The data is from Nomis, based on the 2011 census. This is a poor town, with almost two thirds of the population in socio-economic grades C2, D and E (overall in England, just over 45% of the population is in these grades). One person in five (20%) is on benefits (England 13%). Worse, young people are being abandoned. Amongst 16 to 24 year olds, one in three has no educational qualification whatsoever, and 48% have either no qualification or a Level 1 qualification - the lowest grade (England, 35%). Their future is bleak.
This town has all of the illnesses of the neoliberal economy, the preferred model of Westminster governments since Margaret Thatcher. The state has not intervened, except to pay, grudgingly, the increasingly faulty and impoverishing benefits that its citizens are due. The state has allowed London, its financial quarter and its southern-county hinterland to flourish, while it has left the north to rot.
Why did the state not intervene? The decline of the ceramics works was well-signalled. Their carefully collected census data showed Westminster, long before it became physically obvious in the crumbling façades of the buildings, that this town needed help, needed to diversify, to build a well-educated young population, to be given a hand to climb out of poverty. But Westminster, hypnotised by the snake-oil sellers in the City and the tax-dodging barons of the tabloid press, abandoned the north of England to focus on the comfortable homes and voters of Surrey.
What now? Like the Scottish Highlands, this town has been cleared. Not by the Duchess of Sutherland and her ghillies, but by Margaret Thatcher and her dodgy economists. A young person with gumption will have caught the privatised Virgin train to London and have looked for work there. It's a town, built on clay, sinking.