Ahead of the anticipated launch of the Freeports bidding process this month, the British Ports Association (BPA) has written to ministers across the UK responsible for the deployment of Freeports, urging that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish ports are not left behind.
In the letter, BPA has highlighted that the UK port market is competitive, and delays to the policy could jeopardise the level-playing field which underpins the industry.
The ports sector is expecting to learn further details about the bidding process in the coming weeks, possibly alongside the Chancellor’s spending review announcement.
Because some of the policy tools in Freeports, such as the planning and enterprise easements, are devolved and other levers such as tax and customs are reserved, there are potentially some differences in the way and timescales for designations allocated across the UK. There are also some political differences about the Freeports policy although all four governments are keen to look at strategies to promote regional growth especially given recent impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
The industry is however keen that the four nations work together and that the devolved administration’s embrace the vision which aims to stimulate growth and investment around port clusters, according to BPA.
Unless timescales are aligned there could be a greater risk of economic displacement away from areas waiting for a Freeport designation. This could be to the detriment of UK ports and the coastal communities in which they operate, BPA believes.
“The concerns of certain ports in the devolved administrations are increasing as it has become evident that there might be a significant lag between the launch of the English Freeports bidding process and the rest of the UK. In these cases, questions remain over the structure of Freeports, or even whether they will be established at all,” Richard Ballantyne, Chief Executive of BPA, which represents ports that handle 86% of UK maritime activity, said.
“The BPA has been supportive of the concept of Freeports across the UK and believes they can be a force for immense good – socially and economically – if implemented properly and fairly. However, there are legitimate fears amongst ports in many of the devolved administrations that they will miss out and could potentially be left behind,” Ballantyne added.
“As English Freeports could move full steam ahead, ports from other parts of the UK have become increasingly concerned that the devolved administrations are falling behind,” Phoebe Warneford-Thomson, Policy and Economic Analyst at the British Ports Association, commented.
“The ports industry is market-led and a level playing field for all to compete with one another is critical. The possibility of displacement if the Freeports are not rolled not out evenly is real.”
“We therefore urge all Governments of the United Kingdom to ensure the bidding process is as closely linked as possible for consistency. We recognise that each administration may want to put their own stamp on Freeports, but this should not be at the expense of timings. We would also encourage as much information sharing as possible so that the devolved administrations and Westminster can agree on the final UK Freeport model.”
The association has also suggested that it is critical that a consistent process is established now, as parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales next year and periods of purdah could bring further interruptions to the process.
Following the country’s withdrawal from the European Union, the UK saw the necessity of creating about ten Freeports in locations across the UK.
Earlier this year, the UK government launched a consultation on its proposed Freeport policy.
Freeports are sites which have special business-friendly rules on customs, planning, tax and business rates to drive up investment and growth and the government has been developing its policy since it made a manifesto commitment last year.
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