Last week saw a flurry of bids for freeport status from across the country. As the government assesses the credentials of competing proposals for the creation of up to seven English freeports, James Gore considers the importance of good communications for the successful submissions.
Freeports have emerged as a flagship policy in the government’s levelling up agenda, championed by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as a way to turbo-charge economic recovery by encouraging international trade in the brave new post-Brexit world. But how exactly will they work, and how should successful bidders go about building support from stakeholders and the public for their plans?
The first challenge is to explain what freeports are – and, equally importantly, what they are not – since the concept is not widely understood.
The stated aim of freeports is to promote regeneration and innovation through a package of tax relief, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning. However, characterisation as ‘sleaze ports’ in a recent Guardian article illustrates the scepticism to be found in some quarters about the real beneficiaries of the policy. Likening freeports to ‘mini-tax havens’ immediately raises questions about fairness which could taint projects before they get off the ground. This is exactly why it is so important to clearly articulate exactly how they will work from the outset.
Likewise, positioning freeports as a direct response to Brexit risks alienating those Remainers whose views have not been softened by the EU’s recent vaccine travails. But if freeports can navigate these rocky waters they have an opportunity to catch the wind of optimism as a way out of lockdown starts to emerge from the sea mist.
That being said, freeports would be sensible to avoid overclaiming their economic impact – the public can be dubious about big numbers. Instead, by illustrating tangible benefits with real world examples, freeports should demonstrate the positive changes they will bring for local people.
Most ports have strong historic ties to traditional industries in the regions they serve. Showing how freeports can help build on this industrial heritage with a fresh vision for the 21st century will help to inspire, support and convince the doubters. If not, freeports risk being seen as a threat to existing businesses, attracting ‘hot capital’ which will take flight as soon as any tax breaks expire.
Bidders have been asked to detail community support and show how they will build on and add to existing local partnerships, but this only lays the foundations for successful engagement. Forward-thinking consortiums will already be considering how they can leverage these networks to maintain momentum following a positive decision by government this spring. Early action now around informing and educating stakeholders and the public about the benefits freeports will bring, will provide dividends in the future.