Time for Government to deliver on its freeport rhetoric for the Humber - Mark Casci

The news that the area around the Humber estuary has come together to bid to be designated freeport status is, while hardly a surprising step, an exciting one.

In a sign of how keen the region’s powers that be are, the bid was launched jointly by Associated British Ports (ABP) in the Humber, two Local Enterprise Partnerships of Greater Lincolnshire and the Humber, four local authorities of Hull, East Riding, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire, as well as MPs, both local and national.

The strength of feeling is both palpable and understandable.

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The Humber area is home to some extremely successful and forward-facing businesses, with Hull in particular seeing much to be proud of in terms of tech and green energy.

Humber to benefit from freeports?Humber to benefit from freeports?
Humber to benefit from freeports?

In the last few weeks we heard the news that Saltend had been selected by Pensana as the location for its proposed rare earth facility.

In a first not only for the UK but for Europe, the region could soon be refining the materials which are key to both the offshore wind and electric car industries.

If planners, as they should, approve the proposition it would be a game changer for the region. However the fact remains that the region is not without its challenges.

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Last week The Yorkshire Post published a report by the respected think tank the Centre for Cities which predicted the city of Hull to among the nation’s most vulnerable places to the inevitable recession that the country is preparing to enter.

The region has officially bid to be designated a freeport.The region has officially bid to be designated a freeport.
The region has officially bid to be designated a freeport.

For all its opportunities the region is still home to old-fashioned manufacturing, a sector which is facing issues with demand. So how will freeports help?

Freeports have been touted for the last few years by leading Brexiteers as an area in which the UK can thrive once no longer an EU member state.

While it is true Britain is currently has no areas designated as freeports it did so as such as recently as 2012.

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Indeed freeports are a centuries old entity and exist all over the world, including dozens in Europe. Their champions say they provide a trading space that is free of tax and tariff barriers that allow businesses based there to grow and innovate at a high level. Their critics say they can, if not monitored, allow for tax evasion and money laundering.

Why they were scrapped is complicated but it was a UK Government decision to do so, owing to the fact that the benefits they bring were largely replicated by the terms we were then offered by the EU and that their records were, at best, mixed when it came to delivering success.

So why should we be excited about the prospect of the Humber becoming a freeport you may ask? The answer is that things are different now.

The region, along with much of Yorkshire, is doubling down on the green energy and low carbon emitting agenda.

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It does so with good reason. The green energy sector is set to be one of the chief areas of economic growth worldwide in the coming years. Forecasters predict it could create tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs in Britain and the north of England, with its unique geography, skills sets and assets, likely to be a chief beneficiary of this process.

Indeed ABP, the largest port network in the country, has been vigorously pursuing this agenda as it seeks to bring more maritime traffic and customers through the Humber area in a bid to save the needless emission of CO2 from road freight travelling to the Midlands and North from the ports in the South of England.

As it pivots to a green economy, a thriving freeport could be one of the most important steps in addressing the North-South divide and empowering the region’s economy.

It deserves to be successful and the Government, who include among its senior cabinet members passionate supporters of freeports, must make sure it delivers on its rhetoric both in election campaigns and in championing Brexit, that it delivers on the benefits it promised so enthusiastically when seeking the support of voters.

Anything less would be a betrayal.

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