Would Dovorians benefit if Dover became a freeport?

The Budget of 3 March suggests that Johnson and Sunak have not gone off the idea, despite UK’s paper-thin trade between UK and EU27 and tariff-free access to EU27. But many of us see freeports as being about tariff and tax avoidance, which is at the heart of the gross levels of inequality in Britain today.

On 29 January 2021, I spoke to a senior source at Port of Dover and asked whether Central Conservative government would push Dover Harbour Board down the freeport path. The response was that Dover, surrounded as it is by the steep hills of the beautiful Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), is cramped and just does not have the space needed for warehousing at scale that these schemes require.

Moreover, as primarily a port serving Ro-Ro ferries, and not containers, it is not suitable. The source also explained that ‘freeports’ is a deceptive term; it would be more accurate to call them ‘free enterprise zones’.  He said the areas where central government may be able to push such schemes ahead are likely to be the post-industrial port hinterlands, or near containerised ports on the coastlines of East and North West England.

“Ferry leaving Dover port” by andrew_j_w 
As primarily a port serving Ro-Ro ferries, and not containers, Dover is not suitable as a Free Port

The budget announcement of 3 March 2021 included the announcement of eight freeport/free enterprise zones: East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe/Harwich, Liverpool, Humber, Teesside, Plymouth, Solent and Thames (a joint bid from London Gateway/Tilbury and Ford-Dagenham). Workers in these new zones may come to see the working conditions as less than liberating.

The myths of ‘trickle-down economics’ and eternal cost-free economic growth (based on deceptive economic measures such as GNP) have been exploded in the last decade.

British people need quality jobs, where people get a real living wage to do jobs that need doing in the UK, and that cannot be offshored to low income countries. Dovorians are well placed to decide if the new border clearance and port health jobs (vaunted by Kent Conservatives) are jobs which need doing.

Would these jobs appear whether or not the new Dover Inland Border Facility (IBF) were located on the dangerous non-dualled A2, close to residential Dover, or if it were located three miles further inland on the safer dualled A2, as Port of Dover and local Border force officers and almost all opposition councillors in Dover recommend?

Be that as it may, these are jobs created by new ‘red tape’; red tape which many Kent SMEs are finding is driving them out of business or pushing them to set up in another country. New clearance jobs at Kent IBFs, paying Paul by robbing Peter, perhaps?

Many are the examples of jobs that do need doing urgently, for which people should get a real living wage. We need these quality, non-exportable jobs that come from ‘building back fairer’ in the UK with a Green New Deal. Many are the suggestions going to the Dover and Deal Council Planning, Regeneration and Development Department for their Growth Strategy. Examples include:

  • jobs on buses
  • in care homes, clinics and hospitals
  • on building sites
  • in schools and colleges
  • in a renewed local train system
  • constructing real protected cycle paths
  • manufacturing the turbines, heat-pumps and batteries to store renewable energy
  • regular, non-agency jobs on the ferries
  • growing food for humans on farms
  • in hospitality, arts and culture
  • in the high street retail service sector
  • a newly trained generation of construction trades.

I have worked in impoverished countries in Latin America and heard first-hand how the working conditions in ‘maquiladoras/free trade zone factories’ – on the frontier between Mexico and the USA – benefit multinational employers, wishing to cut their pay bill and their tax bill, and the costs of health insurance. Since the 1980s they have been notorious as places where young workers, especially women, are exploited.

Ministers in the Conservative Government are ill-placed to recommend freeports to impoverished, ageing, coastal towns that they and their predecessors have done much to run-down. I cannot see that freeports are a recipe for levelling up a country whose problems are fuelled by enormous deprivation and inequality. Freeports are about tariff and tax avoidance, which are at the heart of the gross, dysfunctional and disabling levels of inequality in Britain.

“Outlet Freeport – Alcochete – Portugal” by Portuguese_eyes
Within the EU, there are currently 82 freeports or zones in 21 EU member states, including historic freeports such as Copenhagen and Bremen, raising questions over whether the UK would need to leave the EU to make more use of them.

Britain operated several freeports as recently as 2012, when the government stopped renewing their licences. Created in the 1980s, they included Birmingham, Belfast, Cardiff, Liverpool, Prestwick and Southampton. A freeport remains in operation on the Isle of Man – a Crown Dependency and therefore not part of the EU or UK.


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