Free ports are a controversial topic in the developed world, with some seeing them as a way to create jobs and attract investments, while others point to way in which they undermine tax authorities and attract criminal activity. They add that the jobs they ‘create’ are simply moved to the free port from other areas, in which the workers would make greater contributions to tax revenues. Unperturbed, the UK government announced earlier this year that it would establish eight free ports in England located in:
- East Midlands Airport
- Felixstowe and Harwich (Freeport East)
- Liverpool City Region
- Plymouth and south Devon
Investment Monitor offers a guide to all you need to know about these free ports.
East Midlands Airport
East Midlands Airport lies close to Castle Donington in north-west Leicestershire and is one of the busiest air cargo hubs in the UK, ranking second behind Heathrow every year between 2007 and 2019, according to Statista. It is also the 11th busiest airport in the UK by passenger traffic.
The airport sits among some of the UK’s largest cities, including e-commerce hubs Derby, Nottingham and Leicester, which are 20km, 23km and 32km away, respectively. It is also within easy reach of major towns and cities such as Loughborough, Birmingham, Coventry, Lincoln, Stoke and Wolverhampton. It is hoped that the free port will create about 60,000 jobs and add about £2bn to the region’s economy. Some of the large companies to operate in the East Midlands region include Bombardier, Boots, Caterpillar, Next, Rolls-Royce and Toyota.
What they said:
“The benefit to businesses will be streamlined planning, tax relief and simplified customs procedures that will support their growth, and in turn, local communities will benefit from additional employment opportunities and better infrastructure; both of which are targeted at improving people’s livelihoods.” – Kevin Harris, chair of the Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership Limited Board of Directors.
“Today’s news will shine a spotlight on a part of the country which has so much to offer investors, existing businesses that wish to grow, and the supply chains that are linked to them. The global connectivity that East Midlands Airport brings to the bid is more important than ever as the UK looks to strike trade deals around the world.” – Clare James, managing director, East Midlands Airport.
Felixstowe and Harwich (Freeport East)
The Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk is the busiest port in the UK by 20ft equivalent units (TEUs). It was the first port in the UK to be purposely built to handle the world’s largest container ships, and its water depth – it is dredged to a depth of 15m at its deepest – means it can accommodate the latest generation of deep-draught post-Panamax vessels. According to iContainers, it is the eighth busiest port in Europe, and handles about 3.8 million TEUs annually, comprising 48% of the UK’s container trade. Felixstowe is located 23km from the town of Ipswich, 74km from the city of Norwich and 150km from London.
The port of Harwich lies 2km away from Felixstowe, at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour, although to drive between the two ports takes about 50 minutes. Harwich International Port is much smaller than its equivalent in Felixstowe, although it does offer a passenger ferry service to the Netherlands. It is also one of the UK’s leading multipurpose freight ports. Harwich lies 30km from the town of Colchester and 136km from London. The planned Freeport East Hydrogen Hub will offer nuclear, hydrogen, maritime and transport decarbonisation schemes. A new offshore wind hub is being built off the coast of Harwich, covering 110 hectares (ha).
It is estimated that Freeport East will create 13,000 new jobs and more than £500m in investment in its first five years of operation.
What they said:
“Freeport East offers a unique opportunity to build a truly global trade hub at the same time as accelerating opportunities in green energy and helping level up the economy. We look forward to working with the government to further develop our business plan and to realizing the potential that this opportunity represents.” – George Kieffer, chairman, Freeport East bid.
“The combination of the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich offers the UK a unique opportunity in the post-Brexit world, sitting as they do at the main junction point between the UK’s principal trade route to and from the Far East and key freight links to and from northern Europe.” – Clemence Cheng, executive director, Hutchison Ports.
The Humber region is the part of East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire that sits either side of the Humber River on England’s east coast. The biggest city within the region, by some distance, is Hull, a traditional fishing port that more recently has reinvented itself as a green energy hub, with Siemens building a wind turbine factory in the city in recent years, and since reinvesting. Indeed, the Humber region is branding itself as the UK’s ‘energy estuary’. Hull also has a strong manufacturing and R&D base, being the founding city of companies such as Smith & Nephew and Reckitts (now Reckitt Benckiser).
On the south bank of the Humber lie the busy ports of Grimsby and Immingham. According to iContainers, the Port of Grimsby and Immingham is the largest port in the UK by tonnage capacity, and it handles ten million tonnes (t) of coal and 20 million tonnes of oil a year. It is considered to be a crucial link in the UK’s energy supply chain. The port also offers an extensive range of roll-on, roll-off and lift-on, lift-off freight services to Northern Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic. Also within the Humber region lies the town of Goole, the furthest inland port in the UK. Goole’s dedicated rail freight terminal handles about 1.5 million tonnes of various cargoes every year. The town sits on a direct train line to London, is located on a network of rivers and canals, and lies within easy reach of the major M1, M62 and A1(M) motorways.
Within the Humber region are the M62, M18 and M180 motorways, a ferry passenger service to the Netherlands from Hull, and an airport in Kirmington, near Grimsby. The region falls within close proximity to major cities such as Leeds and Sheffield, while Hull has a direct train route to London that takes just over three hours. It is hoped that the Humber free port will create about 7,000 jobs.
What they said:
“The bid is uniquely placed to deliver on the government’s agenda to level up and decarbonise our economy. Over the coming months we will be focusing on delivery to create the new free port, which we expect to bring in major investment to our part of the world.” – Simon Bird, regional director for the Humber, Associated British Ports.
“The way the private sector came together to lead the development of a compelling Humber free port bid, backed by the local enterprise partnerships and local authorities, was truly exemplary and I am sure it will now lead to some impressive results.” – Simon Parnaby, chair, Humber LEP.
Liverpool City Region
Liverpool City Region is located in Merseyside on England’s north-west coast, and has a population of between 1.5 million and 2.3 million, depending upon how it is defined. The city of Liverpool dominates the region, which also contains districts such as Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral. The area is linked to the M62 and M6 motorways, and is also connected by the Liverpool John Lennon airport, the 13th busiest in the UK in 2019 by passenger numbers.
The port of Liverpool is the fifth largest for container traffic in the UK, according to iContainers. It can accommodate post-Panamax ships, and it is equipped to handle all types of cargo, agribulks, automotives, dry bulk, forest products, energy products, metals, liquid bulks and project cargo. Liverpool handles 45% of trade from the US and is the UK’s biggest western-facing port. The port is an enclosed system that runs across 12km and ferries run from it to both Belfast and Dublin. Liverpool’s docks also contain a cruise terminal.
Liverpool City Region free port is hoping to create 14,000 direct and indirect jobs, £800m in investment, and £850m in gross value added.
What they said:
“This is a groundbreaking announcement for the Liverpool City Region. The multi-gateway, multimodal free port will enable key sites across the region to attract new investment, create jobs, support the wider economy and increase levels of innovation. It also has the potential for future opportunities in hydrogen, offshore wind and tidal power.” – Asif Hamid, chair, Liverpool City Region LEP.
“Our recent infrastructure investments provide a modern gateway for businesses in northern England to trade globally more efficiently, and the tariff and tax benefits offered by free ports make the port and city region a perfect choice through which to invest in and trade internationally.” – Mark Whitworth, CEO, Peel Ports.
Plymouth and south Devon
Plymouth’s maritime credentials are known throughout the world, given that the city on England’s south-west coast is where the the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World in 1620. In 2021, the city has a population of about 262,000, making it by far the largest area in the Devon and Cornwall region. According to Associated British Ports, Plymouth’s port contributes more than £95m to the UK economy and handles about 80,000t of cargo each year. It also offers passenger ferry services to France and Spain. Plymouth has direct rail services to London, Bristol and Birmingham.
The rest of the south Devon region includes towns such as Dartmouth, Exmouth, Sidmouth and Teignmouth, as well as the Torbay area, which is popular with tourists.
Plymouth City Council claims that up to 1,000 new jobs could be created in the first two years and 9,000 over the next ten years. The free port is also forecast to bring in more than £100m in investment in the next six years. The Plymouth and south Devon free port will focus on high-tech marine innovation and carbon-zero technology.
What they said:
“It shows that working with our neighbouring colleagues pays off. Bottom line this means jobs, job security, opportunities and significant investment. We are calling our free port a free zone because it is about much more than a port. This will benefit a lot of people across this area.” – Tudor Evans, leader, Plymouth City Council.
“This is great news for us in South Hams because it could bring thousands of jobs and millions of pounds of investment to our doorstep. I am delighted that once again our collaborative efforts to work across local authority boundaries has proven successful.” – Judy Pearce, leader, South Hams District Council.
The Solent region comprises the major cities of Portsmouth and Southampton, towns such as Havant and Gosport, as well as the Isle of Wight. With a combined population of approximately 1.25 million people, the Solent region sits on one of the busiest shipping routes in the world in the English Channel. Southampton is the largest city in the region, with a population of 250,000. Its deepwater port can handle almost all kinds of cargo and its ‘double tide’ allows it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels (it is, of course, where the ill-fated Titanic made its final voyage from). According to iContainers, it is the second-largest container port in the UK, handling more than 1.5 million TEUs annually. It also takes vehicle cargo traffic, running up to 820,000 cars a year, as well as hosting a cruise ship terminal.
Portsmouth is a similar size to Southampton, with a population of 240,000, and while its historic docks are a popular tourist attraction, Portsmouth International Port serves as a cruise and cargo terminal, while also offering ferry services to France, Spain and the Isle of Wight. Portsmouth’s port plays a key role in the UK’s food supply chain, importing, for example, 65% of the country’s bananas.
It is hoped that the Solent free port will create 52,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs split evenly between the Solent region and the wider UK supply chain. With regards to investment, it is estimated that the free port will bring in additional revenues worth £2bn, with £1.4bn coming from the private sector and £600m from the public sector.
What they said:
“This scheme creates the opportunity for billions of pounds of investment in Southampton and across the region and promises to create thousands of jobs across the next few years.” – Royston Smith, MP, Southampton Itchen.
“The announcement represents the start of a new era for the Solent as we begin our work with the government to create jobs, drive innovation and build sustainable, long-term opportunities now and in the future.” – Brian Johnson, chair, Solent LEP
The Thames free port will be based in London and the south-east region of England. London has been one of the main global investment draws for decades, and its status as a hub for trade, tourism and much more is well documented. It is hoped that the Thames free port will create about 25,000 jobs and bring in £5.1bn in additional gross value added or economic output, and more than £4.5bn in new public and private investment.
While London is surrounded by some of the world’s busiest airports and an extensive road and rail network, the free ports will naturally focus upon the two main ports on the Thames: London Gateway and Tilbury, east of London, with an emphasis on introducing electric and autonomous vehicle technology along the A13 corridor into London.
London Gateway is located in Thurrock, Essex, on the north bank of the Thames, 50km from central London. It is a deepwater port able to handle the world’s largest container ships. The port’s quay cranes have multi-lift capability, which means that they are able to lift up to four TEUs at once. The Port of Tilbury is also located in Essex, 40km from central London, and is considered to be the UK capital’s principal port, and one of the country’s three major container ports, along with Felixstowe and Southampton. It also contains the London Cruise Terminal.
What they said:
“The free port builds upon the successful completion of our new port, Tilbury2, and provides the platform for further expansion. The free port policy’s special economic measures will turbocharge the best of the private sector, attracting value-add manufacturing activity to the ports, the Thames Estuary and the wider south-east, alongside supporting key infrastructure projects in the coming years.” – Stuart Wallace, chief operating officer, Forth Ports.
“The Thames free port will be a new centre of excellence for the country as we electrify, automate and digitise our future. The free port provides Ford with a great opportunity as a test bed for a variety of customer-focused mobility technologies and other business opportunities at Ford Dagenham in the future.” – Dr Graham Hoare, chairman and executive director for business transformation, Ford of Britain.
The free port at Teesside in north-east England is reputed to be the biggest of the eight such zones announced by the UK government. The free port will, it is claimed, create 18,000 skilled jobs within five years, and boost the local economy by £3.4bn. It will also support offshore wind, clean energy, chemicals and processing, and advanced manufacturing sectors.
The Teesside free port will be based around the region of the north-east that contains towns such as Middlesbrough, Redcar, Stockton, Hartlepool and Darlington. It covers 1,800ha in total and includes the Teesworks site, Wilton International, Teesside International Airport, Port of Middlesbrough, Port of Hartlepool and Tees Dock. The region lies about 50km south of Newcastle and 140km north of Hull and the Humber free port. Teesside has its industrial roots based in steelmaking and chemical manufacturing, with companies such as British Steel and ICI historically being major employers in the area.
What they said:
“The Teesside free port marks the start of us returning to our rightful place on the world stage as a global player in advanced manufacturing and engineering.” – Ben Houchen, mayor, Tees Valley.
“Tees Valley has really been put on the map owing to the economic campus in Darlington, the free port, the wind farm, and the net-zero projects. The opportunity for further investment and an employment resurgence of construction skills is not one to be missed. We all know investment breeds investment.” – Stuart Miller, board member, Construction Alliance North East.