Richard Cockburn: Concern in Scotland that England’s Freeports plans could leave nation behind

Our firm Womble Bond Dickinson has this week launched a Freeports business sentiment 2021 report, representing the views of over 500 businesses across the UK, from a range of sectors and business turnover size.

Felixstowe is the location of one of the new freeports

As expected, the number of respondents based in Scotland was low, but for those respondents who were impacted by Freeports in England, the sentiment was positive, but met with concern over the lack of progress in Scotland

Results revealed there is concern that England’s Freeports plans could create an uneven playing field and businesses are urging the Scottish Government to reach agreement swiftly

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with the UK Government to launch the Scottish green ports selection process quickly.

Richard Cockburn

Our report, which includes contributions from major organisations such as Lloyds Bank, Brittany Ferries and The British Ports Association to name a few, shows widespread

optimism among English businesses and organisations: 69 per cent of respondents said Freeports should help to attract overseas investment and 46 per cent of businesses also agreed that

Freeports will enhance trade to and from the UK.

There is optimism around skills and jobs development too: 52 per cent of those respondents already based within a planned free zone said they intend to create new skilled jobs within

the next two years.

But that English optimism is not reflected in Scotland. Scottish ports continue to voice concern that they may be missing out to Freeports in other parts of the UK as a result of the continuing delay in kicking off the Scottish green ports selection process, which was expected earlier this year from the Scottish Government.

Since the English Freeports announcement, at least £95m of investment in offshore wind port upgrades have been announced at Teesside and Humber and it is this type of investment opportunities Scottish ports fear that they are losing out on.

Developments continue apace at Scottish ports – such as the multi-million-pound extension at Aberdeen Harbour, the rapid expansion of clean energy activities at Port of Cromarty Firth

and the announcement of a renewable energy hub at Port of Leith – but the longer the delay in the selection process for Scottish green ports, the greater the chance that inward investments will be lost.

Our Freeports business sentiment report underlined the potential for Scotland though. A large proportion of businesses in Freeports and free zones expect to create more skilled roles in the next 12 – 24 months.

This is a great indicator that Freeports will bring the benefits they promise and help to build opportunities in the surrounding areas.

Businesses clearly feel that the Freeports initiative has the potential to drive regional regeneration and economic recovery. However most importantly the survey emphasises that Freeports will not drive success in isolation.

Freeports will not be the answer for every business but, used as one tool in the economic toolkit, the benefits could be significant if all plans are realised and that’s a really exciting opportunity if we are able to put the same mechanisms in place in Scotland.

Read our full report here.

- Richard Cockburn is partner and head of energy at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson

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