Lisa Bowden: Supercharging North with free ports for Brexit

Huge Brexit opportunities exist at ports like Hull.
Huge Brexit opportunities exist at ports like Hull.
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WITH the day that we exit from the European Union fast approaching, businesses need to start thinking about some of the opportunities of our departure rather than concentrating solely on any negatives.

One such idea – in which Yorkshire could potentially play a huge role – is the creation of Supercharged Free Ports. These are free trade zones combined with Enterprise Zones around ports or airports and are exactly the kind of policy the UK needs to consider.

Hong Kong and Dubai are well known examples of international free ports, of which there are now more than 3,500 situated around the world. However, there are no free ports currently in the UK, which means we’re missing out on opportunities to boost manufacturing and trade, and to create thousands of high quality jobs. Paul Plummer: Brexit plan to smooth way for freight traffic

Around the Humber Green Port Corridor for example, it could prove hugely attractive for businesses looking to invest and trade from our region. Tariffs, taxes and barriers to investment would be reduced in the zone, giving businesses the opportunity to boost growth, create thousands of new jobs and better compete on the global stage.

New analysis done by an ex-Treasury economist for Mace shows that Supercharged Free Ports across Yorkshire and the Humber would create more than 80,000 new high quality jobs, adding almost £4.7bn a year to the local economy.

There is also a broad consensus across the political divide that we need to rebalance the UK economy. The Northern economy produced £330bn of economic output in 2016 (UK £1,747bn). Yet, in a balanced economy, it would produce £400bn, around £70bn more.

If we created seven Supercharged Free Ports status across all major Northern shipping ports and Manchester Airport too, it would close the gap between Northern and Southern GVA per head by 15 per cent, creating 150,000 new high-skilled jobs with increased economic output equivalent to £1,500 for every household in the North.

All of these areas are also currently ranked highly on the Government’s index of multiple deprivation and were some of the strongest Leave voting areas in the EU referendum. It would dramatically help regenerate areas which are in need of investment and opportunities for local people.

Unsurprisingly, it’s an idea that is extremely popular with the public – our private polling shows that four out of five people in the country (83 per cent) would support the creation of Supercharged Free Ports.

A key benefit of our suggested approach is that they are not hugely complex to set up and – with some amendments to the ‘Chequer’s deal’ and EU White Paper – could be introduced on day one following Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Creating Supercharged Free Ports at Hull and the Humber, as well as at nearby Immingham and Grimsby for example, would require no major initial investment in customs infrastructure and could make an immediate positive impact on business growth, creating thousands of new jobs in the logistics, manufacturing and distribution sectors. It would also make the case for creating improved East-West rail links such as Northern Powerhouse Rail even stronger, bringing our Northern Ports and their workforce closer together, and making them even more attractive to international investors.

The Northern Powerhouse agenda has prompted a welcome conversation about how we rebalance the UK economy and reduce our reliance on London and the South-East to drive growth. If the UK is to punch above its weight, the North must play its part, and we need to think big to provide Northern England with the opportunity to succeed.

The Supercharged Free Ports we are suggesting are located around existing industrial clusters across the North which would turbo-charge economic growth and trade, including the aforementioned Yorkshire ports alongside Tees & Hartlepool, Liverpool, and Tyne.

Our proposals would help our Northern ports and airports to deliver on our trading potential, while boosting the case for better rail and road links across the region. Brexit need not mean the UK turning its back on opportunities, but instead can herald new and innovative policies for an increasingly interconnected world if the Government chooses to embrace them.

Lisa Bowden is head of infrastructure north at international consultancy and construction company Mace.