Virginia Crosbie is the Member of Parliament for Ynys Môn.
Andrew Bailey’s more upbeat tone in front of the Treasury Select Committee last week has given a renewed sense of optimism for the UK’s economic outlook. The difficult decisions the Chancellor took at the recent Spending Review were necessary to combat rising global inflation, as well as lead Britain back on the path towards economic prosperity.
The Government is right to think about the long-term solutions which will bring prosperity and opportunity to our communities. Yet we cannot doubt that communities up and down the country are facing unprecedented pressures this winter.
The question facing the Government is: how we use our new independent trading position to best deliver long-term prosperity for the nation and deliver economic benefits that best serve our communities? The answer is one which acts as a magnet for foreign direct investment, delivers high-wage, high-skill jobs, and creates hubs of sustainable innovation. To all this, freeports are the answer.
The Prime Minister is of course no stranger to the benefits of freeports, having been a leading voice calling for their widespread adoption following the UK’s withdrawal from the Customs Union. He literally wrote the book on them back in 2016. He was right to highlight their potential then and we must capitalise on the unique opportunity they present now.
Freeports – in which unique customs and tax regulatory easements allow for more efficient manufacturing processes, as well as trading simplifications – have a long history of delivering widespread national benefit to the countries in which they operate. In countries such as the USA, Canada, and Brazil, freeports have been shown to boost productivity, wage levels, and local employment, while adhering to stringent World Free Zone Organisation/OECD regulations on safe operation.
Freeports are critical to the Government’s mission of delivering for every region and community in the UK. For too long – and under successive governments – investment has been focused on urban, metropolitan areas of the country, and communities in constituencies like Ynys Môn have been neglected. Freeports are vital to helping advance communities suffering from economic deprivation, bringing quality jobs to local talent, and acting as a magnet for businesses and entrepreneurs.
Few places in Britain understand just how tough things are than Ynys Môn, my own constituency. North Wales is an area that has faced chronic underinvestment, with household incomes way below the UK average. You could say (and I regularly do) that Ynys Môn is exactly the sort of place that the Government should be prioritising when it talks about levelling-up, which is why I was delighted to see Anglesey County Council awarded £17m from the Levelling Up Fund last week.
But we need as a country to move beyond State investment. We need to be taking steps that encourage the private sector to invest in the UK and particularly in those areas and communities that have been left behind. That is why when the opportunity arose to bid for Ynys Môn to be granted freeport status, the first in Wales, I and the bid partners Stena Line and Anglesey County Council were determined to seize it.
Over the last few weeks and months, I have seen first-hand how businesses react to freeport plans. They put large amounts of money on the table. For them, a freeport ensures they can make long-term commercial decisions and guarantee their investments. The companies that I have corralled around our Anglesey freeport bid have come forward with multi-million-pound pledges. This isn’t an investment that would have cropped up elsewhere, this is new money, based on the benefits that a freeport brings.
But if freeports are such an obviously good idea, why are we creating so few of them? The Government has recently committed to two freeports in Scotland and I would urge Ministers to seriously consider more than one freeport for Wales. Freeports are the economic engine room that deliver for communities that for too long have been let down by empty pledges of support.
Freeports are a wonderful opportunity to make the country into the dynamic, business-friendly magnet for investment that was promised during the Brexit referendum. To boost trade and manufacturing and to level up disadvantaged areas that are going to be hit hardest by the coming economic storm (after all, ports overall tend to have higher unemployment and deprivation). Having delivered the tough medicine of the recent Spending Review, the Government needs to focus and expand on this opportunity.
So, in short, more freeports please. Diolch yn fawr.