Copper’s director of Economic Development, James Gore, provides his analysis of the data gathered for our recently released Attitudes to freeports report.

Long an advocate of the freeport model, the announcement of a UK freeports programme began to feel inevitable in the build up to the Chancellor’s second budget in March. Given the potential implications for the economic development of the regions in which they will operate, it makes sense that Copper’s first public attitudes report following the budget should be about freeports.

I’ve written elsewhere about the concerns from some about how effective the freeport model may be and the implications they have on how Britain trades globally. Far more interesting than the tax havens vs trading hubs debate, especially now that eight freeport bids have been accepted, is how the public perceives them and what this may mean for the delivery of each.

Our report considers the views of a representative sample of 2,000 UK adults who took part in a dedicated survey conducted by Censuswide. The research found that, though a majority of the public believe that freeports will be beneficial to the economy, aspects such as their role in fostering clean growth and innovation are less well understood.

A potential point of concern for those involved in the delivery of the eight freeports, however, will be the general lack of awareness about them. Just 36 per cent of people surveyed said they were aware of freeports. This number falls to 27 per cent among 16-24 years-olds.

The only exception to this is in the North East. More than half (54 per cent) of respondents from the region were aware of freeports. Not only is this higher than national average, it’s also significantly more than in port cities including Liverpool and Southampton.

This could, of course, be down to the fact that there were two separate bids for freeport status from the region. It could also be the result of the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen’s high profile and consistent messaging on the benefits of levelling up and the role infrastructure can play in this. While this may only be part of the story, it does go to show that the right message from the right person at the right time can cut through.

Still, cut through can only take you so far. Those involved in the delivery of the freeports programme will no doubt be pleased to read that, once they become aware of freeports, 60 per cent of people believe that they can be a positive force for economic good.

No doubt this is a good place to start, but the general lack of understanding among the public about how these economic benefits can be realised could, if not addressed, become a point of concern. Like a speedboat leaving a dock, general sentiment towards a project can change incredibly quickly. Getting it back is more like turning an oil tanker.

Working to build understanding about the full range of benefits that freeports can provide, from clean growth and high-tech innovation to increased exports and more local jobs, could pay dividends further down the line

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