Who benefits from the proposed St Helens Freeport?

It was reported last month in the St Helens Star that

“St Helens Council has given its backing to a bid that it says will will put the borough at the forefront of a Liverpool City Region Freeport” (the grammatical error is theirs)

What is a freeport?

In the City Region Freeport Summary Bid a freeport is described as a “tax-site” to encourage inward investment in three regeneration sites:

  • Wirral Waters
  • St Helens Parkside
  • 3MG Widnes

They go on to state

“Eligible businesses in Freeports will enjoy a range of tax incentives, such as enhanced capital allowances, relief from stamp duty and employer national insurance contributions for additional employees”.

There are also plans to create ‘Freeport Opportunity Zones’ at a number of sites including Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

They plan to fund the project from a combination of sources:

“ UK Shared Prosperity Fund, UK National Infrastructure Bank and other mechanisms such as various UKRI Challenge Funds (beyond the dedicated Freeport pot). Planned local investments will be discussed with private partners together with exploring other local funds such as the LCR Infrastructure Platform.”

The project is designed to attract large multinational manufacturers in sectors like pharmaceuticals and advanced logistics. They argue that it will create more well paid jobs that address the government’s leveling up agenda. This will, in part, done by skills providers who will enable “focused skills development, including those critical to digitisation and decarbonisation”

What are the pros?

St Helens Council state the project

“ will strengthen the role that the borough plays in the region’s position as an attractive location for global trade, inward investment and innovation.”

Amongst the key benefits touted are a “range of high-quality jobs in areas such as design and engineering”

Cllr Seve Gomez-Aspron MBE argues that “Newton-le-Willows needs jobs, growth and investment to fund our local town centre through people spending disposable income.” And that the policy was “based on feedback from the public”.

The project will also improve trade and sustainability.

What are the criticisms and questions?

Some would argue that they are essentially tax havens. For instance, the TUC argue.

“Free ports are a Trojan Horse to water down employment protections. Instead of a race to the bottom on workers’ rights after Brexit, the government must guarantee they’ll be protected for every worker in the UK.”

The former Labour MEP for North East of England Jude Kirton Darling has questioned whether free ports will even create new jobs or just move them from one area to another.

St Helens Council’s recently announced support package to help the taxi sector raises similar questions.

“employment and training providers, JobCentre Plus and Genesis Training, to deliver a free and comprehensive pre-self-employment support package leading to a fully accredited taxi driver qualification”.

However, when we spoke to taxi drivers they usually attributed driver shortages to the pandemic. They argued that the self-employed nature of the taxi profession led many to leave taxi industry for other logistics jobs. Whilst these are individual and anecdotal conversations, it would support the argument that these schemes aren’t generating jobs but are a subsidy to existing employers.

Instead of making taxi driving more attractive via a combination of better wages and improved productivity they are using a short-term sweetener. When one considers how taxi operators have consolidated into a few large players then it’s difficult to argue a level playing field with other sectors.

And many of these concerns about unlevel playing fields that favour large players can equally be applied the Freeport project.

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