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Freeports will not save Christmas. Sorry

Freeports may be very big news for big business, but the benefits of these duty-free hubs will be limited.

The UK’s ports facilitate more than 95 per cent of Britain’s international trade by volume and 75 per cent in terms of value. That’s more than £500billion of stuff. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the paper The Big Issue magazine is printed on and even large, pre-assembled sections of the football stadiums we visit arrive by boat.

We might live in the digital age but, for an island nation, these hives of trade and activity, these sites of comings and goings of people and goods, are key to our connection to the wider world.

Eight freeports were announced in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s 2021 budget, including the cargo hubs at Felixstowe, Liverpool, Southampton, Teesside and on the Thames Estuary.

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They are promoted as a sign the country is “open for business”. The buzzwords and government-speak keep on coming. Freeports will “turbo-charge” trade following Brexit, we’re told. They will “transform” local economies by creating hubs for innovation via “high-tech industrial clusters”, boosting jobs, becoming “magnets for business” and investment and greening-up our infrastructure. This, to use the government’s favourite phrase, is evidence of its “levelling-up” agenda in action.

But is it, really? Here’s what you need to know.

What are free ports? 

A freeport is effectively an extended enterprise zone with benefits: avoiding import tariffs if raw materials or parts are imported, remodelled and exported without leaving the designated zone. They also offer business rates relief, deregulated planning, reduced stamp duty and lower NI contributions.

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Freeports, though not a new idea – they operated in the UK from 1983 until 2012 – are big news for big business. With sites from Dagenham to the London Gateway mega port (in Thurrock, but owned by Dubai) the new Thames Freeport is not the UK’s biggest – that remains Felixstowe – but is growing the fastest. The expectation is for a 30 per cent uplift in trade by 2050 in the wake of the freeport development. 

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But will these freeports solve very real, post-Brexit supply-chain issues that have seen fuel shortages, empty supermarket shelves, a run on CO2 (vital for both prosecco and crumpets) and fears over toy and turkey supplies? So far, 2021 has seen only turbo-charged chaos and boosted uncertainty.

We set out on a patrol boat from the Port of London Authority (PLA) headquarters in Gravesend in search of answers and fresh perspectives on London’s history as a port city and the impact of the evolution of the docks.

Ebb and flow

It is chilly and bright, the sun low in the sky. The mission is to pick up a pilot, one of the specialists who help larger boats navigate the singular waters of the Thames, from Dagenham. Patrol boats are the traffic cops of the river. The PLA makes the rules here and their patrols help enforce them.

The Romans built the original port in London. The success of the port, and therefore the city and wider region, has ebbed and flowed just like the tidal river it stands on, ever since. John Stevenson from the PLA, who accompanies us on the patrol boat, explains that, historically, GDP expansions and contractions track the fortunes of our ports. 

As trade increased and the city and cargo ships bringing goods from around the world grew, so the ports moved down the Thames Estuary.

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London’s Docklands are no longer an area of docks but a leisure and business district, its Thameside warehouses now home to City workers. Land reclaimed in the old West India Quay supports the high-rise offices of Canary Wharf. 

“Calling that area Docklands reinforced the idea that the docks closed, rather than moved a couple of miles down the river,” says Claire Dobbin, curator of London: Port City, a new exhibition at the Docklands Museum. “But the history of the port is the history of London.”

The exhibition gets to the root of the influence of the docks on the global city that grew along the Thames. 

“A cooper based at the docks in the 1960s described his work as ‘like geography come to life’, because he was handling products and commodities from all over the world – from Persian carpets and African ivory to peaches from Italy and melons from Spain,” says Dobbin. 

“We also draw attention to echoes of the port’s cultural impact, which can be found in many place names. Canton Street in Limehouse is a reminder that this area was once London’s first China-town – a thriving dockside community from the late 19th century to the 1930s.”

While the docks moved down river, into Essex and out of sight of most Londoners, the boats never stopped coming. These days, 12,000 arrive at the Port of London each year.

Sailing into the past

We head west and are immediately immersed in history. The Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks on June 22, 1948. These days most of the region’s grain, soya, CO2 and paper arrives here. Heading the other way are recycled metal bound for Turkey and glass on its way to Spain or Portugal. The imaginatively named Tilbury 2 opened last year with work under way on a further 400-acre site, at Tilbury 3.

But the ports bring far more than goods to the surrounding area. They also provide good jobs. 

According to Stevenson, “there is acute deprivation in the area. You couldn’t find a more deprived area than Tilbury town. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good place to live. Although,” he adds, ruefully, “it doesn’t have a pub.”

While there is high unemployment in the area, what work there is pays well – and one in five of the people in employment works on the docks. 

Will freeports bring new jobs to the region? Undoubtedly. But at what cost? Critics fears fear labour and safety laws could be relaxed in the drive to attract business, while others suggest freeports do not create new business or jobs but rather relocate them. 

Professor Catherine Barnard from Cambridge University, deputy director of independent research forum UK in a Changing Europe, says: “The thought they’re going to transform the wealth and prosperity of this country is simply untrue. It will help the regions that get a freeport – but possibly to the detriment of those that don’t.”

Moreover, Stevenson also notes: “The business benefits of the freeport to local growth just happen to last about the length of the electoral cycle.”

At Tilbury, according to Stevenson, the haulage crisis is felt less heavily than at other ports. Likewise, NHS supplies that are shipped into Dartford continue their journey by water to Butler’s Wharf, just east of London Bridge, before being transported direct to St Thomas’ Hospital by cargo bike.

“People aren’t going to tolerate diesel trucks,” says Stevenson.

Greener and quicker, that’s what these docks and their networks and proximity to large populations aim to offer. Just as food from around the world arrives via the Thames – the internationalisation of our diet propelled by boats from around the world for centuries – so London’s waste returns by barge.

“Refuse from London is transported via barges, with each container bigger than a refuse truck,” says Stevenson. “They are towed down the river to the Belvedere incinerator and this is, in turn, used to create electricity. It’s a nice circular economy.”

On our journey, we see the arrival point for 80 per cent of the region’s fuel, most of its grain, huge new CO2 containers, Amazon’s latest super warehouse – which employs 11,000 people – and the site of the London Resort, a proposed Thameside theme park. The scale of operations along the Thames Estuary, and the view of Dartford crossing from below, is breathtaking. We reach Dagenham, drawing up alongside a huge ship from which a pilot is brought aboard.

Adapting and evolving

London’s largest manufacturing site, the Ford factory in Dagenham, is known for iconic cars and industrial disputes. It has been a site of industry and resistance since 1931. These days, entire cars are not built here. Such is the way of modern manufacturing. Instead, parts assembled around the world arrive, engines are constructed and, under freeport rules, exported without paying import tax on the parts. 

Business on the river adapts to new ways. And life in the surrounding area evolves. New communities, new jobs, new transport networks, new families will appear here. Freeports will not save our Christmases. But if – and only if – they bring investment in community as well as business, they at least offer hope for greater prosperity for a few coastal communities. 

Eventually, East London will bleed out all the way to Southend

John Stevenson

We return to PLA headquarters in Gravesend as our expert guide explains how residents of the small Essex towns and new developments we pass will, in effect, become tomorrow’s East Enders.

“In the last 20 or 30 years, this has been the main area of London’s growth and expansion,” says Stevenson.

“Eventually, east London will bleed out all the way to Southend – as long as there is sufficient quality of living for residents and commuters.”

As for the ever-growing Thames Freeport, will it help save this Christmas? “Although not instantaneous, it will support the flow of goods to businesses and consumers in the medium term,” he says. “This will increase supply-chain resilience across a range of cargo types, including food, drink, perishables, consumer goods and CO2.”

Just as it did in Roman times, the Thames shapes and feeds the city and region it serves. In business-speak, it remains an evolving, living asset winding through the heart of the city. In the poetry of Ewan MacColl: Flow, sweet river, flow… 

London: Port City runs until May 8, 2022 at the Museum of London Docklands

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