A freeport could well be coming to Teesside. The question is, how do we realise its full potential?
Locally, we’re expecting several key benefits to come from the concept – regeneration, inward investment from new businesses and job creation. To achieve those things, we need to plan carefully and play to Teesside’s existing strengths.
We’ve already got a diverse complement of industries on the doorstep, including the process industry, automotive manufacturing, offshore engineering and renewable energy. The forthcoming regeneration of the former SSI steelworks site at Redcar with its low-carbon focus is also important.
The freeport must support growth, and not inadvertently create a competing environment to tempt inter-region relocation. This could cause a damaging imbalance in the region, in which non-freeport areas put businesses at a commercial disadvantage and consequently empty out.
A federated freeport model could be the answer. This is perhaps more easily understood as a “virtual freeport” – one where technology allows non-port areas to be zoned as part of the freeport, enjoying the same tax incentives. It would mean areas that are home to existing employers could be strengthened and the door opened to expanded future investment, particularly from our global businesses on Teesside. The result could be a more interdependent area that spreads the investment-inducing benefits of freeports deeper into the region, encouraging job-creating supply chains to cluster.
The Government has already proposed a range of tweaks to the planning system, designed to make freeports the economy-boosting schemes they’re touted to be. On behalf of various organisations, Barton Willmore submitted responses to the Government’s freeports consultation. Encouragingly for Teesside’s bid, it looks like we, and many other respondents, have been listened to.
Extended permitted development rights were one of our suggestions. It might sound a bit techy, but they’re important. In essence, they give automatic planning permission for developments that meet certain specifications. They’re already used at ports and airports, and expanding them to freeports is vital to make sure we encourage a much broader spectrum of businesses besides marine industries to these zones. For example, it would allow a manufacturer, based in the freeport zone but away from the port, to quickly expand its factory in response to market demand.
Such measures could give Teesside a competitive advantage over some of its neighbouring regions – particularly the likes of Leeds City Region which is otherwise a much larger centre of economic gravity.
And when it comes to the port itself – there are some key advantages that planners should build on. Teesport is a major deepwater facility that’s currently underused. If a freeport is to bring more heavy freight and equipment to the docks, we’ll need surrounding road and rail transport infrastructure to have enhanced capabilities and capacity. These links will need to align with wider transport plans for the North, particularly Northern Powerhouse Rail.
We also need to consider the environment. Some commentators have warned freeports threaten to roll back various environmental assessments required of developers, leading to indiscriminate building. But this needn’t be the case. With a tailored framework, Teesside could be positioned as a world leading freeport for environmental sustainability – attracting exactly the type of clean energy operators that Tees Valley Combined Authority sets its sights on in the Local Industrial Strategy.
Originally writen for the Northern Echo.
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Freeports, Northern Powerhouse, Economic Growth, Sustainability