Autumn Statement: Humber Freeport boss Simon Bird hails devolution deals as 'huge step forward'

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement set out the Government’s blueprint for the economy for the months ahead – and paved the way for enhanced investment in the Humber.

As the UK’s busiest ports complex and pre-eminent energy cluster in North West Europe, the Humber is absolutely vital to the prosperity of UK Plc.

That status was recognised in the Autumn Statement, and prior to it, with measures that will support unprecedented investment across the estuary.

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As the Humber Freeport company, we see these measures as important to fulfilling the transformative potential of freeports, aligned to the devolution of powers and funding to the region.

Humber bridge by night. Picture: Future HumberHumber bridge by night. Picture: Future Humber
Humber bridge by night. Picture: Future Humber

Firstly, in advance of the Autumn Statement, HM Treasury announced a five-year extension to the tax breaks investors receive when developing in freeport sites.

Those tax incentives had been due to expire in 2026, which was simply too tight a timescale for major investments that can take years to deliver. The extension to 2031 will make freeport sites highly attractive to international investors.

This vital change could unlock billions of pounds of inward investment in the region, creating thousands of skilled jobs in sectors such as advanced manufacturing, engineering and green energy.

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The extension underlines the vital role freeports play in driving economic growth, stimulating innovation in emerging technologies and supporting the decarbonisation of industry.

The Humber, with its port infrastructure and proximity to both North Sea geological resources and Northern Europe, offers large-scale opportunities in the clean energy transition around offshore wind now and – with the right policy support – captured carbon and green hydrogen in future years.

An example of Humber Freeport driving this growth can already be seen at Saltend Chemicals Park east of Hull – within the freeport footprint – where Meld Energy is planning to invest £180m in the largest green hydrogen production facility of its kind in the UK.

Another welcome announcement by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was a new, £150m Investment Opportunity Fund for freeports and Investment Zone sites for investor-specific programmes.

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The Chancellor also announced two long-awaited devolution deals in the Humber, for Hull and the East Riding, and Greater Lincolnshire.

As a pan-Humber company, Humber Freeport will act as a link between the two new bodies, shaping and aligning our own strategy with the investment strategies created by the combined authorities.

Securing these county deals is a huge step forwards for the Humber, unlocking funding and opportunities to shape the region’s strategic direction, under the high-profile leadership we see in other areas where the benefits of devolution are well established.

Humber Freeport and our partners, including the region’s MPs and other stakeholders, lobbied for many of these changes – a great example of the Humber speaking with one voice.

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We appreciate recognition at the highest levels of Government that the changes we pushed for are vital to maximise the potential of freeports and create the conditions to enable the scale of investment we envisage to be realised.

The advantages for investors choosing to develop in freeport sites have been well publicised, but a broader economic benefit which has, perhaps, been understated is from the uplift generated by business rates.

Freeports retain business rates revenue generated by new and expanded developments, to be re-invested into projects which are economically beneficial for the region – from skills, to transport infrastructure and economic development.

In essence, this creates a generational regeneration pot, with benefits felt for the next 25 years. That means freeports provide opportunities both now and for future generations.

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The success of Humber Freeport since its launch is tangible. Our tax sites in Hull and Goole have already attracted £1bn of inward investment, which will create up to 600 jobs.

Major investments within the Humber Freeport footprint include Finnish company Metsä Tissue’s plans to build the UK’s largest tissue paper mill in Goole and Pensana investing more than £150m in a rare earth processing facility in our Hull East tax site.

These investments underline the impact of freeport status, in attracting new technologies and supporting job creation and supply chain growth.

So much has been achieved, but we know there is more to do to maximise the benefits of freeport status.

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To quote Jörgen Sandström, Head of Transforming Industrial Ecosystems at the World Economic Forum: “There are few places around the world more crucial to the road to net zero and industrial decarbonisation than the Humber – it is a location from which so much can be achieved and learned.”

Now is the time for the Humber to drive the UK’s economy to a sustainable future, with Humber Freeport playing a critical role. The Chancellor’s welcome announcements around freeports and devolution will support that push.

As a global gateway for trade and investment, Humber Freeport is delivering for the region, for the UK, and for decades to come.

Simon Bird is Chair of Humber Freeport, and Humber Director for Associated British Ports