UK ports are calling on the government to make freeports ‘ground zero’ of the levelling up agenda and to expand their number.
Eight freeports have been nominated in England – with further locations planned in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – but CEO of the British Ports Association Richard Ballantyne has questioned their limited sites.
“Initially eight locations were designated as freeports, but we believe the government needs to roll out similar tools (preferential business, tax, and planning rules) elsewhere to have a meaningful impact across the nation,” he told the Loadstar.
“We’d like to see more freeports, but we’d also like to see some more improvements on things like planning easements as well.”
‘No expansion planned’
The government’s deputy head of freeports at the department for levelling up, Gabriel Bernard-Harding, previously told attendees at IOE&IT's MemberCon22 that there were no plans to expand the programme in England.
“The current position is that we are not looking to create any further freeports in England,” he said.
Bernard-Harding added that the number of freeports being introduced was limited to ensure that the regions selected took full advantage of their benefits, as well as due to cost concerns.
Peel Ports Group, one of Britain's port operators, published a 40-page report, ‘A level playing field’, that outlines the role of ports in achieving better outcomes for levelling up the country.
Claudio Veritiero, CEO of the group, said freeport designation could be “a game-changer for levelling-up and regenerating areas many feel have been left behind in recent decades”.
The Peel report points to an imbalance of UK cargo with 90% of deep-sea containers coming into the country’s south-eastern ports, despite 60% of cargo being destined for areas north of Birmingham, according to Seatrade Maritime News.
Speaking at the Maritime Exchange conference, Liverpool Freeport director John Lucy said the new incarnation of freeports were more ambitious than those in the past, reports Liverpool Business News.
Liverpool Freeport will encompass multiple locations across the city region and beyond and has the potential to condense 20 years of growth into 10 years with the creation of 10,600 new jobs, adding £1.3bn annually to Liverpool’s economy, Lucy told the conference.
Future of policy
Meanwhile, there are concerns that the flagship levelling-up policy could peter out under a new Tory leader.
With PM Boris Johnson leaving office soon and former levelling-up minister Michael Gove currently not serving in the cabinet, the whole strategy faces an uncertain future at best, according to Politico.
Although both of the remaining leadership candidates have at least some personal stake in the levelling up project, the fact that it has barely been mentioned so far in the leadership campaign has not gone unnoticed in Whitehall.
The leadership contest has today been whittled down to its final two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, and is expected to conclude on 5 September.