Joined up approach will make freeports work for all

Teesport - one of the government's eight proposed sites for a freeport.

The government’s proposed new freeports programme must enhance their regions’ prospects for investment and growth to be a success, says Peter Hogg of Arcadis.

The government’s announcement last week on freeports is a neat move on the part of the chancellor. It’s an initiative that simultaneously talks to levelling up, post-Brexit inward investment, job creation and support to global trade. All of that and they don’t even require the Treasury to find up-front cash to fund them.

The government was careful to select freeport locations around the UK, demonstrating appropriate commitment to levelling up without ignoring the significant opportunities that ports in the south offer. Even the Midlands was not left out with East Midlands Airport freeport included in the list. 

Inevitably, with 30 applicants for what transpired to be eight places there were surprises and disappointments – Bristol and Tyneside will be particularly sore not to have made the cut and no doubt the lobbying for a second round of allocations starts straight away.

For East Midlands Airport, Felixtowe & Harwich, Humber, Liverpool, Plymouth, Solent, Thames and Teesside, the work starts now to work up proposals into operational freeports by the end of this year. Just what is the job to be done, however, to make these freeports a success for their locality and the country as a whole?

Each must be shatteringly clear on what they are famous for. An emergent, “create it and they will come” approach is doomed to add a random patchwork of activities that add little to the local economy and struggle to attract quality investment. The successful freeports will be the ones with the clearest and most compelling strategy and prospectus to occupiers and investors alike.

Individually and collectively, they must take great care to be additive. Nothing will be gained if freeports act simply to use their incentivisation powers to poach existing activity to locate within the port only at the cost of a lost business to another location. Genuinely new jobs, investment and activity must be the measure of success.

The freeports must look beyond their own boundaries and fit within an economic and societal strategy for the region within which they are located. They must be additive and complimentary, enhancing the region’s prospectus for investment and growth. 

The freeports should be an innovation accelerator. Now more than ever, the UK must enhance its competitive advantage by remaining on the cutting edge of innovation. Freeports should be an opportunity to attract new industries, vibrant R&D activity and advances in productivity, harnessing the power of the UK’s digital and tech capability.

As businesses look to add resilience to their logistics and operations post Covid, freeports should be a magnet for the re-shoring of research, innovation and manufacture. The freeport can offer an ‘in a box’ proposition of access to skills, to markets, to materials and to investment that make them a compelling location. 

Finally, freeports must not miss the opportunity to decarbonise commerce and trade. Foresight in logistics and distribution, energy provision, construction, workforce mobility and manufacturing and production methods will create a once-in-a-generation opportunity for freeports to contribute to the decarbonisation agenda.

Setting the framework is just a promising start. The real test is how Whitehall, regional government, ports and commerce work together to seize these opportunities.

Peter Hogg is UK cities director at Arcadis.