Freeports: flying the flag for a ‘Global Britain’

In a world dominated by Covid-19, it is easy to forget about the once ubiquitous topic of Brexit. Yet behind the scenes, negotiating teams in Westminster and Brussels are working around the clock to reach a compromise on the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. Scant progress has been made and somewhat unsurprisingly, age-old quarrels surrounding fishing rights have resurfaced – threatening to derail the entire process unless ground is ceded on both sides.

Unperturbed by the prospect of ‘no deal’, Boris Johnson is steadfastly committed to the transition period ending on 31 December. For now, the UK stands at a crossroads: either accept reduced sovereignty in the hope of securing a comprehensive free trade agreement, or double down and forge its own path as an independent trading nation.

If the Prime Minister opts to pursue that untrodden path, its success or failure might lie in his willingness to embrace innovative approaches to the international exchange of goods. Could freeports – widely touted but poorly understood – allow Britain to rediscover its maritime traditions, and hold the key to championing Britain as a beacon of global free trade?

Back in February, the Department for International Trade launched a consultation on its plans to establish up to ten freeports across the UK. The announcement was met with grand pronouncements typical of this Prime Minister, hailing freeports as ‘titans of transhipment’ and ‘humming hubs of high-quality manufacturing’ that will accelerate trade, investment, and employment. Conservative MPs – especially those representing the Brexiteer and Thatcherite wings of the party – are united around the notion that freeports signify everything positive about Brexit Britain as a proud, independent trading nation.

Last month the British Ports Association published an economic recovery plan that showcased how investment in ports can play a part in the UK’s healing from the deepest economic shock in living memory and offer a path to prosperity in the long-term. Right at the heart of this was the notion of ‘a bold and broad-based inclusive freeports and fast track planning policy.’

Our expert consultants understand that dedicated teams within both the Department for International Trade and HM Treasury are pressing full steam ahead with the plan for freeports. Far from presenting a barrier to the initiative, Covid-19 has caused the Government to view freeports as an integral part of its efforts to rebalance and restart the economy.

James Wharton a former UK Government Minister for Local Growth and the Northern Powerhouse and current Chairman of Corporate and Public Affairs at Hume Brophy, believes that the introduction of freeports could be an engine of significant economic activity: “Freeports are a real opportunity and likely to form a key part of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. Rishi Sunak, in particular, has form for promoting this policy and is now in the all-powerful role of Chancellor. Where they happen, they could be game changers, but not everywhere can have one and competition is going to be intense.”

Former Special Adviser to the Director-General of the WTO and Senior Consultant at Hume Brophy, Stuart Harbinson, acknowledges that international experience of freeports is mixed. Whilst “the Special Economic Zones worked very well for China when it was opening up”, Stuart says, the UK Government’s ability to deliver a holistic and detailed proposal for the rollout of freeports will be critical to its success.

The benefits are myriad. Freeports will no doubt result in both national and regional relocation of businesses and individuals into freeport areas, with significant impact on local economies. But with competition expected to be fierce, the onus will be on individual stakeholders to steal a march on their rivals and make the case for their participation in the project.

Hume Brophy has the expertise, the experience, and the political insight to give businesses and operators that edge. From navigating the ongoing consultation process, to shaping policymaking and building your credibility through a tailored political engagement programme, Hume Brophy’s expert team stand ready to assist. If you would be interested to discuss this further, don’t hesitate to contact simon.jennings@humebrophy.com