Supercharged free ports can spur free trade and rebalance Britain

3 min read

From Donald Trump’s public spat at the G7 meeting, to the ongoing issue of what form of customs arrangement the UK will have from 2019 onwards, the interconnected issues of tariffs, free trade, and import duties are high up the current political agenda.

The UK’s ability to trade and build a thriving future economy is vital if we are going to take advantage of the opportunities available post-Brexit and outside the EU customs union.

To do this, it is essential that we also embrace the other pressing national issues, including rebalancing the UK economy, improving connectivity, and increasing productivity.

As one of the largest British consultancy and construction companies, Mace is proud to use our knowledge and expertise to help solve the pressing issues of the day. That is one of the reasons we are encouraging the government to create “supercharged free ports”, to take advantage of some of the opportunities that Brexit presents.

Free ports are special areas around ports or airports which are treated as being outside a country’s customs border. If you combine it with an enterprise zone, it becomes “supercharged”.

For example, a car factory operating within a supercharged free port can import components and raw materials, create its products, and then export the goods abroad, all without paying domestic duties, while paying favourable business rates and having generous capital allowances.

Britain has a grand history as a trading nation, with an infrastructure of experienced ports and airports ready to take advantage of new commercial opportunities. In terms of connectivity and accessibility to foreign markets, many of these well-established ports are located in the north of England.

We want to see the creation of seven supercharged free ports located around existing northern industrial centres that have pre-existing infrastructure, spare freight capacity, superb geographical proximity to foreign markets, and the drive to grow to their full potential.

By basing the free ports here, we can help regenerate areas of high deprivation and rebalance the UK economy.

The UK has a short period of time to gear itself up to embrace the opportunities of Brexit. We cannot afford to neglect any area of the UK. The Northern Powerhouse has generated plenty of column inches, but we need to put more meat on the bone if we are to make the most of this region as a vital, successful and innovative economic asset.

Creating supercharged free ports should be a central part of this strategy – and it can be done the day after we leave the customs union. Our research shows that would add £9bn a year to the northern economy – equivalent to £1,500 a year for each northern household – and create up to 150,000 new high-quality jobs.

There is widespread public support too. According to representative polling done for Mace, 83 per cent of those questioned would back the creation of supercharged free ports. This support spans age ranges, political affiliation, and geographical location across the UK. Rarely do politicians have such a universally popular policy option at their disposal.

Brexit dominates the current debate, and yet we hear too little about specific, real-life projects that will help the UK prepare itself for life outside the EU. This is a policy that will help British businesses grow, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, make the most of existing infrastructure, and improve the lives of millions of people.

What we need now is the political will and leadership to get this project off the ground. While there are countless issues that divide our political parties, the one thing they agree on is the need to rebalance the UK economy. This is a practical way to actually do it.

If our politicians – be they Remainer or Leaver, Conservative or Labour – are serious about addressing the major challenges of the day, supercharging the northern economy would be an admirable start and would leave a bright legacy of opportunity for the next generation.

This article was written by Mace's Chief Executive Mark Reynolds and originally appeared in City A.M

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