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Plymouth freeport: how much do we know?

  • by JW

“Whilst these plans are still in their infancy, it is clear that we are ambitious and driven to move forward at pace.” [Plymouth and South Devon Freeport]

“From Teesside to Plymouth, these ‘special economic zones’ are shrouded in secrecy” [George Monbiot]


Today’s Devon Live gives the latest news about the Plymouth ‘freeport’ – which is basically the official approach, as given by the leader of Plymouth City Council:

“We want the Freeport to not only be an economic boost for the city, but also be a hotbed of innovation. Whilst these plans are still in their infancy, it is clear that we are ambitious and driven to move forward at pace. The end result will be that we not only attract investment, and stimulate growth in green technologies to help our economy, but we put Plymouth on the map as a city where it makes financial sense to do business.” Plymouth City Council plans £15.6m investment in Freeport – Business Live

Here’s the same message from the group behind the freeport:

The Plymouth and South Devon Freeport will supercharge the South West economy by building on our region’s unique national capabilities in marine, defence and space to form globally impactful clusters and a UK Innovation Superpower. Freeport – Plymouth and South Devon Freeport

Interestingly, the support for the freeport appears to be cross-party, with the initiative coming from central government and supported by the Plymouth city council: (20) Plymouth and South Devon Freeport (@PASDFreeport) / Twitter

With lots of positive news about the Plymouth Marine Business Technology Centre, the The Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the Langage Energy Park and “a high level delegation from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to Britain’s Ocean City to discuss in depth collaboration.” News – Plymouth and South Devon Freeport

But what sort of discussion has there been about a ‘freeport’ being established in Plymouth?

Wikipedia gives an overview of the critique:

Proposals for free ports in the United Kingdom have been heavily criticised by opposition parties, trade unions, think tanks and various economists. Reasons for this include the possibility for use as tax havens, smuggling and a way to erode worker’s rights. Despite claims of a cross party consensus, Labour Party members showed opposition to the idea with a speaker at a Labour conference describing them as “job-destroying”.[10] Further to this, Labour party leader Keir Starmer called it “giving up” and “blind faith”.[11] At a Liberal Democrat conference in 2019, members passed a motion for the abolition of free ports due to the increased risk of money-laundering and tax evasion.[12] Similarly the then Home Affairs spokesperson—and later leader— Sir Ed Davey suggested the UK could become the world capital of money laundering. Free ports in the United Kingdom – Wikipedia

In fact, it’s very difficult to find any critique of the Plymouth plans – as it’s all about the huge amount of cash being invested: Massive multi-million pound investments in Plymouth Freeport plans – Plymouth Live (4 July) and Plymouth firms welcome freeport plan approval as £25m grant unlocked – Business Live (9 December)

It took George Monbiot in the Guardian a year ago to raise some questions:

Welcome to the freeport

From Teesside to Plymouth, these ‘special economic zones’ are shrouded in secrecy – and exist solely to benefit big business

One approach is to create places where the usual rules do not apply and citizens have less decision-making power. I’m talking about “freeports”. In crucial respects, these “special economic zones” operate as if they were outside a nation’s borders. They are the equivalent of the royal forests of medieval England. Forest derives from the Latin foris, which means outside. The forests were hunting estates where the king’s private interests overrode the rights of the common people, elevating them beyond the usual laws of the land. The Westminster government has so far designated eight freeports in England

The new freeports will be run by “operators”, among whom are some highly controversial private companies. Companies using a freeport can claim a wide range of customs privileges and tax cuts… The original proposals, which have nowhere been publicly amended, offer businesses “permitted development rights” and “local development orders”, allowing them to build without the usual planning requirements. Another offer is a “simpler framework for environmental assessment”. “Simpler”, like “streamlined” and “flexible”, is government-speak for the removal of public protections. On Teesside, environmental standards already seem to have been junked to make way for the coming freeport.

There is a further, extraordinary aspect, which is beginning to come to public attention. While the “tax sites” and “customs sites” in a freeport cover a maximum of a few hundred hectares, the operators are allowed to set an “outer boundary” with a diameter of up to 45km (28 miles). Where a “very strong case”, with a “clear economic rationale”, is made, the area can be even wider. There must have been some very strong cases, because some of these zones are 75km from point to point. The Plymouth and South Devon freeport incorporates the whole of Dartmoor and the entire South Hams region.

Welcome to the freeport, where turbocapitalism tramples over British democracy | George Monbiot | The Guardian

A book has just come out looking at just these issues: Crack-Up Capitalism — is democracy in danger from free-market dogma? | Financial Times and A conversation with Quinn Slobodian | Crack-Up Capitalism (Penguin, 2023) | Centre for Intellectual History and Crack-Up Capitalism by Peter Slobodian, review: a messy broadside against libertarian dreamers

Here’s the long view:

One proposal came from Sir Peter Hall, a geographer by training, who lamented the moribund state of Britain’s great cities. In a 1977 speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute, Hall argued that the revival of urban areas required a dose of “fairly shameless free enterprise.” Inspired by the meteoric rise of cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, Hall’s “freeport solution” envisaged “free zones,” which would lie “outside the limits of the parent country’s legislation”—free from taxes and regulations and where “bureaucracy would be kept to an absolute minimum.” As Hall later acknowledged, the speech reflected his “blue sky” thinking and was made “slightly tongue in cheek.” As such, he “did not expect anyone to take this seriously in policy terms.” He was therefore very surprised to receive a call from Geoffrey Howe inviting him to lunch. The False Promise of Opportunity Zones – Boston Review