Let's think big and supercharge our Northern ports and airports

4 min read

Stood proudly overlooking St Ann’s Square in central Manchester is the statue of Richard Cobden, the Victorian statesmen known for high campaigns to repeal the Corn Laws and promote free trade.

This is a visible sign of Manchester’s and the UK’s proud history as a global trading nation.

Yet, in recent decades, investment in some of our critical export enabling infrastructure has slipped behind our international competitors and we have turned our back on a world outside of Europe. While the recent focus on British infrastructure has been centred upon the debate around Heathrow’s third runway, China is set to build over 60 new airports by the middle of the 2020s.

We live in a global and interconnected world with competition coming from places thousands of miles away. With our departure from the European Union just over 200 days away, we need to get match-fit for the opportunities and challenges of Brexit. Particularly, we need to be bold about investing in our trading infrastructure.

Ports and airports are particularly crucial to the North of England, which is home to so many innovative, exporting and globally competitive businesses. Rebalancing the economy and reducing the UK’s reliance on London and the South East means investing in infrastructure to support growth in sectors such as advanced manufacturing here in the North.

Free Ports are an increasingly popular policy that could supercharge the North’s trade potential. These free trade zones around ports or airports are exactly the kind of policy the UK needs to consider as we leave the European Union.

A Supercharged Free Port around Manchester Airport, that is a Free Port combined with the renewal of the existing Enterprise Zone there, could prove hugely attractive for businesses looking to invest and trade from our region.

Tariffs, taxes and other barriers to investment would be reduced in the zone, giving businesses the opportunity to boost growth, create thousands of new jobs and better compete on the global stage.

New analysis done by an ex-Treasury economist for Mace, shows that a Supercharged Free Port at Manchester Airport could create more than 6,000 new high-quality jobs in Greater Manchester, adding over £360 million a year to the local economy.

If we applied this status across the six Northern ports and Manchester Airport, this would amount to 150,000 new high-skilled jobs, with increased economic output equivalent to £1,500 for every household in the North. It’s an idea that is extremely popular with the public too – our private polling shows that over three-quarters of people living in Manchester and the North West would support the creation of Supercharged Free Ports.

A key benefit of our suggested approach is that they are not hugely complex to set up and could be introduced on day one following Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Creating a Supercharged Free Port at Manchester Airport, for example, would require no major initial investment in customs infrastructure and could make an immediate positive impact on business growth, creating thousands of new jobs in the logistics, manufacturing and distribution sectors.

It would also make the case for creating Northern Powerhouse Rail and a new HS2 station at the airport even stronger. Such a move would also make Greater Manchester even more attractive to international investors.

Building a true Northern Powerhouse means not only developing improved transport infrastructure across our region, but also creating a welcoming environment for businesses and investors.

Ensuring the North’s workforce is well equipped with skills for the future is an important part of that, as is ensuring businesses are supported in their efforts to grow, export and invest.

However, if Greater Manchester and the North of England as a whole is to compete successfully with developed and emerging economies alike, we need to make Britain the world’s foremost trading nation. This means making trade easier, more affordable and reducing the regulatory burden on businesses wishing to import materials and export their goods.

Our proposals would help our Northern ports and airports to deliver on our trading potential.

Brexit need not mean the UK turning its back on opportunities, but instead can herald new and innovative policies for an increasingly interconnected world if the Government chooses to embrace them.

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