People are starting to notice that the new ‘freeports’ are in fact much larger than originally perceived, taking in significant areas of natural beauty including Dartmoor, the New Forest, the whole of the Isle of Wight and the North York Moors. They also engulf entire cities such as Derby and Nottingham, Hull, Scunthorpe, and large areas of Liverpool.
Initially limited to 45kms between any two points (which still covers up to around 1,600kms2 per freeport), the most recent maps provided by the government show some areas with up to 75kms between points.
As the prime minister returns from his second foreign holiday in a fortnight, and the government is wading through a morass of self-created chaos, crumbling national infrastructure and unappealing in-fighting, Great Britain has been diverted and blissfully unaware that it may have just lost huge swathes of its green and pleasant land.
What first attracted you to Britain’s mineral rich national parks?
The new freeports between them cover around 15,000 to 20,000kms2 – approximately 8% of England’s total surface area.
Of the national park authorities I spoke to, not one was consulted before being included in the outer boundary of the new freeports. Neither did they have any clear idea how any change in planning regulations would affect them.
Concerns for our wildlife
Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, England’s largest environment and wildlife coalition, told me that they are still trying to figure out why national parks have been included in the new freeport outer boundaries and what the environmental impact could be. They have submitted some questions to the government and are awaiting a response.
Kate Jennings, head of site conservation policy for the RSPB, is also concerned. I asked for her thoughts on the inclusion of areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in freeport outer boundaries. She commented as follows:
“Freeport status brings with it scope to remove some of the usual checks on development that could otherwise drive further loss of wildlife … the government appears to have opened the door to unfettered development AND committed to delivering more beautiful and biodiverse landscapes in some of the same places.
“While Defra are responsible for National Parks and AONBs, the Treasury are responsible for Freeports – it appears that so far only the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has responded to queries about how this could have happened. While they have clarified that changes to planning restrictions made so far within Freeports do not extend to the outer boundaries, it seems that risk remains that it will fall to local authorities to reconcile this obvious conflict. As a result, there is a new and serious threat to some of our most rare and threatened wildlife.”
The conflict between freeport development and the conservation of our national parks and AONBs, if left to local authorities to resolve, could result in another conflict of interest. A quick check at Companies House reveals that local councillors are often on the boards of the new freeport limited companies.
Opaque and vague details for the proposed freeports
There is a disturbing lack of concrete detail in many areas of the freeport project. In its response to the freeports consultation, the Royal Towns Planning Institute highlights this as a major concern. In response to the question:
What role could zonal planning, including the use of Local Development Orders, play in delivering the wider generation of local areas around freeports?
They replied, “We would welcome clarification on the term ‘around Freeports’”, and they go on to state that the “current document ignores climate change and biodiversity net gain which are two examples of existing legal requirements for all planned developments”.
Digging deeper: fracking
Though fracking has in effect been banned in Britain since the government placed a moratorium on the activity in its election manifesto of 2019, in April of this year the department for business, energy and industrial strategy led by Kwasi Kwarteng requested the British Geological Survey to review the scientific basis for fracking.
Alarmed at this development, the organisation Yorkshire Landowners wrote to the minister for clarification. Less than happy with the response, they have been led to believe that both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are indicating an end to the moratorium on fracking. As a result, Yorkshire Landowners have posed eight public questions to the leadership candidates, the last one being:
Given the debt mountain in the US fracked business community, as well as orphaned wells in the Canadian equivalent – meaning a sting in the tail for host communities, too – do the two candidates really want to inflict such horrors on England’s green and pleasant land, and its voting inhabitants?
Freeports and criminal activity
Britain has already experimented with freeports. Margaret Thatcher opened the first ones in the 1980s in response to her de-industrialisation policies, in an attempt to regenerate a struggling economy. They were decommissioned by David Cameron’s government in 2012, after they failed to reap the promised benefits and were in reality a drain on the economy through lost tax revenue.
In 2020, the Royal United Services Institute centre for financial crime and security studies submitted evidence to the international trade committee regarding the international experience of crime in freeports. They said:
“There is evidence of criminal activity taking place in multiple freeports around the world. It often involves trade in counterfeit goods, drug trafficking, smuggling of untaxed goods or trade-based money laundering.”
They make a number of recommendations on how to mitigate the risk in the UK, most of which involve increased security activity, crime pattern analysis and intelligence gathering.
In 2021, the EU clamped down on freeport activity for the very reason that they were found to facilitate illegal activities such as money laundering, art theft and terrorism.
Lack of clarity leads to speculation
So many questions arise.
Why re-introduce these entities which have previously failed to provide the expected benefits and how are these freeports to differ from the previous ones?
The government talks of huge job creation opportunities, but we have a significant labour shortage in this country. Where are all the workers going to come from? Will they share the same rights as workers outside the zones? Despite the reassuringly limited area the word ‘port’ evokes, why are the outer boundaries so enormous, engulfing whole cities like Southampton, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Colchester, Scunthorpe, Nottingham, Loughborough, Derby, Dagenham, Purfleet, Hornchurch, parts of Hull, and the entire island of the Isle of Wight?
Is it purely coincidental that by superimposing their locations over British Geological Survey maps there are worrying correlations between freeport outer boundary locations, and sites where petroleum exploration and development licenses have been granted, or where coal bed methane sites and gas/oil fields have been identified?
Packaged as an exciting opportunity for areas in need of ‘levelling up’, there is real concern that the bonfire of regulations the current government dreams of can also be construed as the perfect mechanism to achieve their aim of minimal government by enabling a corporate takeover of Britain’s cities and natural resources.
It is up to the people now to put pressure on the government to clarify this scheme and commit to a properly accountable and clearly defined project.
As things stand, that is simply not the case.