Dartmoor at risk!

Photo by Anthea Simmons

Does Lib Dem-led South Hams Council know what the Freeport really means for our wild spaces? Jim Funnell questions whether the council is in control of the full facts

Last week I wrote to all the South Hams councillors with wards bordering on Dartmoor. I expressed my concern that South Hams District Council has failed to communicate clearly the risks and implications of the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport (PASD) – not only for our precious South Hams natural areas, but also for Dartmoor itself. What does the huge Freeport area – stretching across Plymouth, Devon and South Hams – mean for SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)?

A quick recap: the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport is an area running 75 km north-south, which is being imposed on council taxpayers (without public consultation in South Hams), in which sites are developed using public and/or private finance, enabling businesses to relocate and operate under ‘favourable business conditions’ and with tax breaks.

Back in 2022, hard-pressed, cash-strapped councils were pressured by the Truss and Sunak governments to approve freeports across the UK. Twelve of them are now imposed across the country.

Meanwhile, the freeport model itself is in danger of being heavily discredited (see the Financial Times(£) article here), and the roll-out of the Plymouth Freeport comes at a time when council money could be far better spent on the housing crisis and essential services for health, wellbeing and infrastructure.

What was the ‘clear economic rationale’ that made Dartmoor irresistible?

My concerns about our precious wild spaces encompass a range of issues and some key questions. Dartmoor National Park Authority seems never to have been consulted or engaged with on the freeport boundary that almost entirely encircles Dartmoor. South Hams, Devon and Plymouth Councils maintain that the boundary takes in Dartmoor because that is consistent with their Joint Local Plan. However, the National Park has always had its own plan which supersedes any other, so, therefore, that purported rationale for the boundary is not in itself legitimate.

The Freeport Bidding Prospectus is the master document that was used to compile the application for the Plymouth & South Devon Freeport in the first place. This prospectus states:

3.1.4 Unless a very strong case is made, the largest area the Freeport Outer Boundary can cover is a circle of diameter 45km. Bids judged to be designed simply to maximise the area contained within the Outer Boundary without clear economic rationale will fail the bidding process”.

None of us would allow a neighbour to redraw our garden boundary, especially if they said, “Don’t worry – it just works well for the geography. I haven’t got anything planned.” Imposed boundaries mark a precedent and set a claim on land – and for a ‘business-favourable’ vehicle such as the freeport, this precedent brings potential for significant risk, in the near, mid and long-term future of a significantly lengthy 25-year freeport designation.

Another concern was that neither South Hams council nor any of the other freeport members have seen fit to explain the small print in the freeport prospectus to Dartmoor or to its own South Hams councillors.

Dead cats and fake news

Unfortunately, instead of open transparency, the Liberal Democrats-led South Hams Council seems determined to follow the Conservative Party playbook of the past few years.

A case in point is its factually false press release of 01 December 2023. With all the brass-neck veracity of a Boris Johnson statement, this press release (sent to all media outlets AND its own councillors) boldly lied with the headline, “The Freeport is On Track following Review”.

What was the review in question? The council’s own internal audit of the freeport. What did this audit state clearly? Multiple concerns that the council was far behind – with no risk analysis, no management plan, no Net Zero Advisory Board, a lack of clarity on its legal agreements, and – oh yes! – this bit:

“3.17 …some aspects of the Freeport timescale, planned in January 2023, are already up to five months late by August 2023.”

And this:

“3.18 In these 18 months the net income in the first 5 years of operation has changed from net positive projection of £2m to a net deficit of £288,000. This cashflow impact is because of the delay in occupancy and due to the fact that business rate income from both Langage and Sherford has moved back approximately 2 years.”

But why should Liberal Democrat-led South Hams Council let the truth get in the way of a good (false) press release? Personally, I find this willingness to tell outright lies totally shocking.

The council has also started to embrace a popular Tory policy of the past few years: dropping  ‘dead cats’ on the table. A good example is this statement, shared widely in response to concerns about the freeport area being imposed on Dartmoor:

It is not the case that the entire area within the outer boundary has been earmarked for development. No-one believed this was the case, and to suggest it, merely distracts from the real issues and questions that must be answered.

Time to read the small print

There is a distinct possibility – I would say probability – that even South Hams hasn’t truly absorbed the small print and ramifications of what the freeport, and its vast Dartmoor border, really means. Collective ignorance is a recipe for disaster. So let’s look at the Freeport Bidding Prospectus and see what it says that might be relevant to Dartmoor and our precious green and wild spaces across South Hams.

Tax and Customs sites

A freeport involves both ‘customs sites’ and ‘tax sites’. Customs sites are areas where businesses don’t have to pay tariffs on some goods they import; tax sites are areas where businesses take advantage of tax benefits that include not having to pay National Insurance payments for newly employed workers.

Within the current freeport ‘rules’ there can only be three tax sites in each freeport, and there must be at least one customs site. The freeport is run by a ‘freeport company’ and this can  apply to create more customs sites within its boundary.

I spoke recently with William Telford, Business Editor of The Herald/ Plymouth Live, who has researched and written at length on the freeport. He points out that:

…An individual new customs site could, in theory, benefit from relaxed planning regulation. The Government’s own website highlights relaxed planning rules for customs sites. It said Freeports will “provide a supportive planning environment for the development of tax and customs sites through an extension of permitted development rights and incentivising use of local development orders.”

75 km of Freeport

It is important to note, however, that the freeport is more than just the individual tax and customs sites. The Freeport Prospectus states that a freeport is one coherent area within the boundary:

Section 3.1 The proposed model allows for multiple sites to be designated within the overall Freeport. This allows bidders to best reflect existing economic geographies; to maximise collaboration between ports, businesses, wider stakeholders and relevant economic assets by allowing them to benefit and contribute to one Freeport in their region; and to ensure businesses looking to invest in Freeports have increased options available to help them secure an optimal location that works for them.”

Regulatory flexibility

The phrase ‘regulatory flexibility’ should raise the hackles of anyone who has seen instances of terrible planning (there are many examples), and weak, malleable ‘regulators’ (OFWAT, OFGEM, DEFRA…take your pick, it’s a long list).

The Freeport Prospectus outlines three theoretical case study ‘examples’ of what regulatory flexibility could look like. The examples given are conveniently sanitary, and all focus (naturally) on ‘clean’ tech. The first one starts: “Company X and Company Y want to pilot autonomous vehicles and…the controlled space within the Freeport allows Company X and Company Y to safely test new technologies, guided by the regulatory support of the Freeport Regulation Engagement Network.” (‘FREN’).

Access to this ‘FREN’ is one of the ‘benefits’ of relocating into the freeport. It’s clearly a very powerful little private club, with access to an even more powerful group – the Freeport Innovation Network (FIN) – which is billed by the Government as “…a collaboration vehicle for Freeports to shape and organise their innovation activity as a collective.” That’s code for ‘massively influential lobby group’ – which comes with official government backing.

The Freeport Prospectus elaborates further on the benefits of this private members’ club:

Company X has piloted zero emission automated vehicles to load, unload and transport goods around the Freeport…The Freeport Regulation Engagement Network help Company X understand that, as their testing would be on private land, they do not require regulatory approval.

And as if that wasn’t enough, even more strings can be pulled – right across the whole freeport area: “Company Y has piloted zero emission automated logistics vehicles to deliver their goods directly from the Freeport to local markets and warehouses…The Freeport Regulation Engagement Network (FREN) acts as the liaison point…helping them speak directly to the relevant officials and to enable regulatory flexibility…The flexibility of UK regulation has enabled them to pioneer new cleaner and more efficient logistics processes.

So, how about trying this game:

Re-read the case study examples above, but swap out ‘automated logistics vehicles’ and substitute ‘carbon capture industrial plants’. Or how about ‘mining’, ‘weapons systems manufacture’, ‘spaceflight components’, or ‘engine propulsion systems’ for rockets. What could ‘flexibility of UK regulation’ look like in these cases? Suddenly ‘regulatory flexibility’ looks a bit more complex and something that we might prefer was regulated a little more tightly, rather than ‘flexibly’ enabled by the ever-giving ‘special FRENds’ network. It’s clearly a powerful private business club, and us residents aren’t invited.

The Freeport Prospectus, in fact, lists many other stripped-back regulatory frameworks, including: “simplified import procedures,  “simpler, area-based planning”and“Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA)…the government will be considering how environmental assessment can be streamlined across all forms of development.

Anyone who cares for precious outdoor environments understands the implicit danger lurking within the words “simpler planning” and “streamlined” environmental assessments. They are big red warning lights – we’ve seen them before – and the outcome is rarely good.

Fences, security and ‘no go’ areas

If sites are given the go-ahead on Dartmoor, we should expect that they would come with fences, security and no-go areas. The Freeport Bidding prospectus outlines what would be expected as a basic non-negotiable for a ‘regular’ Customs site:

…robust perimeter security measures such as fences, controlled access gates and lighting to secure goods within the customs site… appropriate measures in place to ensure that businesses operating within the Freeport customs sites are complying with the relevant security requirements”.

All freeports have been given a ‘specialist’ focus. The Plymouth & South Devon Freeport is specialising in marine, defence and spaceflight: these are all sectors that demand enhanced levels of security, spanning both national security and public safety. Security gates, powerful lighting and perimeter fences are likely to be substantial if the sites in question were to house defence or space-related equipment.

Regulatory ‘Sandboxing’

‘Regulatory sandboxing’ is my favourite bit of the Freeport Prospectus. Rarely has such a blatant push for deregulation been couched in such jargon. This part of the prospectus reads like a clear invitation for some serious lifting of protections and regulations in favour of business ‘innovation’.

3.9.15 iii. Freeport regulatory innovation…the government recognises that regulation in some cases can be challenging to navigate for innovative firms as they develop, test and apply new ideas and technologies in some sectors. Therefore the government will commit funding to facilitate direct engagement between Freeports and relevant regulators [to]:

a. Enable an early engagement process between innovative businesses and regulators

b. Support businesses on regulatory issues minimising bureaucracy and uncertainty

c. Generate ideas to engage businesses and regulators on areas of potential opportunity

d. Identify opportunities for regulatory flexibility and new regulatory sandboxes

It is clear that ‘innovative’ approaches and ‘sandboxes’ are actively encouraged, with freeport bidders being asked to “outline which specific barriers may limit their ability to test new technologies in their Freeport, now or in the future. These barriers may be specific regulation, processes or otherwise. Outline where they see opportunities for and how they would look to take advantage of any regulatory flexibilities or regulatory sandboxes, now or in the future, to minimise these barriers”.

South Hams and Dartmoor: on the front line of ‘regulatory flexibility’

The precedent of the freeport boundary around Dartmoor (seemingly imposed without consultation or engagement) will soon be set in stone unless challenged. Meanwhile, South Hams – rich in precious natural areas – is also very much at risk from the ‘flexibilities’ enshrined in the freeport small print.

South Hams Council – led by Liberal Democrats – needs to think hard about the potential threats embedded in the small print, and ensure it is comfortable with the risks, not just to Dartmoor, but to all our wild spaces.

And if anyone at the council doesn’t actually understand what some of the freeport small-print really means, they should act on a precautionary principle.

My fear is that their own lack of information means councillors are unable to reassure residents. They don’t know what they don’t know. If South Hams Council really wants to push ahead with the freeport, it needs to reassure not only its councillors but also residents and all lovers of wild and important outdoor spaces, that our environment is safe from ‘regulatory flexibility’ and ‘sandboxes’.

There are many ways to stop our natural spaces being given away. Renegotiation of the boundary is one. Better, more concrete agreements that put South Hams residents and environment first – not last – would also be important. Ordinary clarity is the least we should expect.

Simply ‘giving away’ Dartmoor and our natural spaces to the freeport is not responsible. Ignorance is not bliss, when the warnings and concerns are there, loud and clear, in the small-print of the very thing being hurried into existence. Everyone should take note.

What happens to Dartmoor and our wild spaces will take place under the watch of the South Hams Liberal Democrats. The question is, how seriously are they taking their responsibility? Or will this freeport simply be nodded through – without the full facts?

Democracy relies on the public (us) demanding transparency and accountability from our elected representatives. Use this tool to find out who your elected local, South Hams, Devon County or Plymouth Councillor is. Email them and ask your questions based on what you have read. Do they really understand the issues involved? Are they prepared to fully back the Plymouth & South Devon Freeport?