The government has no plans to introduce any further new freeports in England other than the eight it has announced already, an official has said.
Gabriel Bernard-Harding, deputy head of freeports at the Department for Levelling Up, told attendees at IOE&IT MemberCon22 yesterday (12 July) that the country already had a good spread of freeports across its different regions.
“The current position is that we are not looking to create any further freeports in England,” he said.
He said that the number of freeports being introduced was limited to ensure that the regions selected benefitted properly from their benefits, as well as due to cost concerns.
“We ran a competitive process for selecting freeport locations and received a number of bids," he said. “There’s a pretty decent spread across eight or nine English regions. There is no intent to create more at the moment.”
This doesn’t end further freeport expansion in the UK more widely though, Bernard-Harding said.
As reported previously in the IOE&IT Daily Update, the government has launched a Scottish freeport bid process, with results set to be announced this summer.
The official stated that bid processes would soon be launched for a Welsh and a Northern Irish freeport, acting on the government’s previous commitment to have freeports in all four sections of the UK.
Freeports aren’t new in the UK, but their scope has expanded under the government’s current plans, according to Bernard-Harding.
“Historically, freeports have had a strong focus on customs and trade facilitation,” he told the conference.
“It’s true those are very important elements of what UK freeports here-and-now are about, but these have been paired with a broad package of incentives, including generous tax reliefs to incentive investment, direct government funding, and locally retained business rates.”
“It’s a much more comprehensive package,” he added.
He also said that new UK freeports will be bigger than their predecessors, with a radius of up to 45km permitted.
New freeports can also be established around rail and air ports, as well as sea – the East Midlands Freeport was highlighted as one such example.
Bernard-Harding admitted that the challenge for the current freeport model is to create new economic opportunity rather than simply moving existing businesses from one region to another, as had happened with previous government schemes.
He hoped that the change in approach would help solve this.
“The distinctiveness of identity across the freeports is important to ensure that each freeport competes with their own unique selling points and target markets, looking to bring in specific type of investment that suits the characteristics of that area, rather than all fishing in the same pond,” he said.
High-tech skills needed
When asked about how Liverpool Freeport was planning to benefit from the new model, its director John Lucy told IOE&IT MemberCon22 about the importance of education.
“There’s a skills gap crisis looming,” he said. “We’re trying to get in front of this by embracing the challenge we’re going to see in our region.”
He confirmed that the Freeport was working with the IOE&IT, local schools and colleges to develop a freeports qualification programme to train the future workforce in how to work in high-tech port industries.