Reading a tweet by South Devon MP Gary Streeter lavishing praise on Johnny Mercer’s lobbying for sealing the deal for a freeport in Plymouth, I was struck that perhaps he was giving the game away: that while there is much work undertaken by council staff, regional development specialists and key industry partners in the technical construction of this sort of bid, good old-fashioned lobbying is at the heart of this government’s decision making (though ministers probably listened to entreaties from business rather than to Mercer).
As Conor O’Luby’s recent article A Freeport for Poole: Free Trade or Free Ride set out, most research seems to suggest that the benefits of freeports are fairly limited and what little there is simply leaches the economic value out of other areas. So what may be Plymouth’s gain will likely be somewhere else’s detriment. Last summer the PM appeared at the mothballed Appledore shipyard to make an exciting announcement about its future under new proprietors. Is there a danger now that former Appledore owners Babcock will be sucking the best projects and talent into Devonport thanks to the freeport status?
It will also be interesting to watch offshore wind. Cornwall has established great strengths in this technology and some sort of announcement is expected to boost Johnson’s green credentials at the Carbis Bay G7 conference in June. But are Cornish businesses about to see the best of the opportunities beckoned over the Tamar to invest where the tax is free?
It also bears mention that Plymouth’s Oceansgate development (in part funded by European Regional Development Funding!) already has tax advantages because of its status as an Enterprise Zone so some of the benefits and incentives of the freeport status are already there.
Good luck to Plymouth but can we hope that central government will also invest in much needed transport upgrades to facilitate additional economic activity in the area and also that excellence in smaller and more remote parts of the South West won’t be forgotten if (or when) they start to lose out?
Sincerely, Rebecca Harrison
Editor: In his budget speech, Rishi Sunak repeated Boris Johnson’s lie that freeports are “a policy we can only pursue now we are out of the EU” ignoring the fact that the UK had 7 freeports between 1984 & 2012! And here’s Johnny describing the Plymouth freeport as one of the “first ever…in the United Kingdom. Do they really need to lie about absolutely everything?