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Freeport development projects
Freeport development projects could play an important role in achieving green growth and opening new social opportunities in deprived areas
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Freeports: innovation, investment and a tool for levelling up

With a dozen freeports now confirmed across the UK, local authorities and businesses can seize the opportunity to promote inclusive, low-carbon growth in these locations, says Susannah Gregory, UK freeport account leader.

The past year has been a transformational one for the UK freeports programme, as one of the government’s flagship economic initiatives made the leap from policy proposal to reality. During 2022, the first group of English freeports received final government approval and the competition closed for freeports in Scotland and Wales. Discussions are ongoing in Northern Ireland.

There are now eight operational freeports in England: East Midlands, Freeport East (Felixstowe and Harwich), Humber, Liverpool City, Plymouth and South Devon, Solent, Thames, and Teesside. In Scotland, the two successful bidders selected by the Scottish Government – Forth, and Inverness and Cromarty Firth – will be known as ‘Green Freeports’. And most recently, two Welsh freeports have been given the green light: Celtic Freeport (Milford Haven and Port Talbot) and Anglesey.

A freeport is an area designated by the government to drive economic growth. Located at international entry/exit points for materials and goods – typically shipping, air and/or rail hubs – they offer administrative, customs, development and tax benefits. At Mott MacDonald, we believe that building a portfolio of aligned freeports can play an important part in both economic recovery and in the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

A freeport’s value lies in its power to boost economic activity and create new opportunities for people in some of the UK’s most deprived areas. Over half of the UK’s big ports are located in boroughs classed as among the most deprived in the country. By bringing jobs and investment to these locations, freeports could embed inclusive and low carbon growth in some of the communities that need it most.

Focus on cities

We are particularly excited about the potential of the four English freeports in urban centres: Teesside Freeport, Liverpool City Region Freeport, East Midlands Freeport and Thames Freeport. With high populations and with supporting infrastructure in place, they are especially well-placed to benefit from the opportunities presented. These include innovations in sectors aligned with a net-zero future, such as green energy generation, decarbonised industry, innovative manufacturing, sustainable transport and aviation, and more.

An example of this is the decarbonisation, carbon capture and hydrogen pipeline projects we are involved with in Teesside. We have been appointed as front-end engineering and design (FEED) contractor for the net-zero Teesside onshore pipelines. These are a key element of the UK East Coast Cluster carbon capture and storage (CCS) project – one of the first of these industrial clusters in the country.

It may be in cities that the biggest social impacts can be achieved. As an example of what is possible, Liverpool City Region Freeport is planning to invest in a Freeport Skills Academy aimed at helping local unemployed people and young people who have grown up in care to secure jobs within the freeport.

Economic growth in freeports could be accompanied and encouraged by improvements to transport and aviation infrastructure. In the East Midlands, we’ve been working with Manchester Airport Group (MAG) to develop their cargo masterplan at East Midlands airport, the second largest air cargo airport in the UK and the only inland freeport location.

Improving people’s lives, together

We understand that stakeholders – national, developed and local governments, port owners and operators, enterprise partnerships, city deals and developers – want to deliver better social value through their activities, either to comply with legislation or because they are motivated to deliver positive social outcomes as part of their corporate activities. We think freeports are an opportunity to go beyond compliance and involve local people in developing the vision for their future freeport, to achieve transformational change.

This is how.

Socially inclusive outcomes

We use a social outcomes framework to identify, manage and mitigate risks, and to identify ways in which the projects we work on can deliver the best possible outcomes for people. Our social outcomes framework addresses accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing. Freeport development projects have the potential to promote positive outcomes across all five of these.

To create inclusive growth, freeports should be well-connected to the communities in which they are located and play to the strengths of the local labour market. The aim should be to generate social change alongside economic growth, creating long-term, secure employment in an area rather than displacing jobs from elsewhere.

Better access to quality housing, community facilities and sustainable transport should be among the core delivery priorities.

It’s important to engage with local stakeholders early, and bring together local organisations that are trying to achieve similar regeneration goals, to embed these objectives early in the freeport project and help ensure maximum buy-in from the community.

Defining success

Focusing on social outcomes from the outset doesn’t only deliver a better project in the short term, it will ensure a freeport is truly working as it should – as an engine to drive forward recovery and opportunity.

Mott MacDonald’s purpose is to improve society by considering social outcomes in everything we do; relentlessly focusing on excellence and digital innovation, transforming our clients' businesses, our communities and employee opportunities.

Helping drive forward an inspirational, inclusive, innovative, sustainable, and low carbon freeport agenda will boost economic, social, and environmental value for current and future generations.

Approached in the right way, freeports could help to build more resilient and inclusive communities and be the catalyst for transformational change for local people.

Susannah Gregory, UK freeport account leader, Mott MacDonald

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