Free trade zones in UK ports could stimulate infrastructure investment, streamline logistics and lead to a higher demand for marine services
UK Department of Transport deputy director of maritime Rod Paterson said the government was committed to generating regional growth by introducing freeports.
This is backed by the Port Zones UK initiative and All-Party Parliamentary Freeports Group chairman Martin Vickers MP.
“Ports are a vital part of the UK economy and we want to capitalise on the opportunities for growth,” said Mr Paterson.
“We see this as collaboration between government and industry for growth and expansion. Freeports will help us fulfil these ambitions.”
Ports will be asked to bid to become one of 10 freeports that could be formed.
Mr Vickers said freeports could include the Port of Tyne, Port of London, Grangemouth and Peterhead in Scotland and Milford Haven in Wales. Other ports in northern England could also be included. Demand for towage services in these ports could rise in the long term.
“We will target areas of high unemployment and where it will help coastal communities,” said Mr Vickers. “We could boost trade by £12Bn (US$14.5Bn) and create thousands of jobs in the northern England economy.”
Mr Vickers said freeports would only be credible if the UK was outside of the EU. “Remaining in a customs union would hamper our freeports plan. Brexit must go ahead for freeports to go ahead.” This would represent a hard Brexit.
However, British Ports Association chief executive Richard Ballantyne thinks enterprise zones could be introduced even with the UK within a customs union with the EU, resulting in rising trade and demand for marine services.
“We could have freeport zones without hard Brexit," he said. "There is still complicated legislation and bureaucracy, so we want government to streamline these for rapid decisions on port development.”
He added that UK ports will lose access to EU funding after Brexit. EU funding was accessed by the Port of Dover for its ongoing regeneration programme.
“We have been pushing UK Government about offsetting this funding with grants and finance,” said Mr Ballantyne.
“Enterprise stimulus can be achieved and can be packaged up. Freeports can be an opportunity for integrated thinking.”
An example of this is the Port of Tyne’s plans for virtual corridors of free trade zones between the port infrastructure and some of the major industries in northern England.
Port of Tyne chief executive Matthew Beeton said his organisation wants to “not just move the boundary of the port, but extend with virtual freeport corridors using technology to make these connections.”
This could boost tug operations in the Port of Tyne, which is already investing in container ship terminal infrastructure to boost that trade by 40%.