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, says inclusion and social outcomes specialist Sarah Marshall.
Now that the UK has left the EU, the Government is shaking off past restrictions and forging ahead with a plan to create new rules around trade with eight new Freeports being established in England and others anticipated in the devolved nations.
Freeports are Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where goods in transit are exempt from customs duty, as well as benefiting from administrative, development and tax benefits. But beyond the economic gains, Freeports also offer diverse social opportunities and can play a key role in the national recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
Learning from the past
The aspirations for Freeports are not new. Previous incarnations of SEZs in the UK pledged economic and social benefits but did not always live up to their expectations. Investment and jobs were often displaced from elsewhere instead of generating new jobs, while past attempts at urban regeneration struggled to deliver wider community benefits including the provision of affordable housing.
Learning lessons from past Freeport manifestations in the UK and other parts of the world is key in delivering successful new Freeports which open up opportunities and share benefits with local communities.
This is particularly important now, as the national socio-economic context is currently dominated by the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a risk of rushing to generate economic growth at the detriment of thoughtful consideration of long-term outcomes.
The key to success for Freeports is to generate positive social change, which means putting social outcomes - such as better access to quality housing, community facilities and sustainable transport, good and secure jobs and greater community wellbeing - at the top of the core delivery priorities. Freeports must offer a path to prosperity in the long-term by promoting sustainable growth and driving new socio-economic opportunities.
Delivering for the future
When it comes to delivering social outcomes, one size doesn’t fit all. In the UK and elsewhere, each community has its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses – the key is to play on the strengths and address location-specific challenges from the early planning and design stages.
To prevent the displacement of jobs from elsewhere, UK Freeports need to be well-connected to both their internal and external markets and the communities in which they are located. They must build on what is already in place - the business and societal culture of the region - to capture the full potential of the Freeport.
A homegrown approach to Freeports which builds on existing strengths and links to local labour markets will foster more inclusive growth and better long-term employment outcomes.
It is also important that Freeports do not fall short of delivering on promises of wider regeneration and wellbeing outcomes. To make this happen, Freeport development should prioritise local needs and foster equality between different parts of society. The way to achieve this is by involving those who will be affected by decision-making and understanding and addressing their concerns, creating an inclusive and people-driven process.
Regeneration planning also needs to be harmonised to prevent splintering of investment streams - bringing together local organisations that are trying to achieve similar regeneration goals, pooling resources and creating shared objectives can be the best way to deliver outcomes that are truly transformative and achieve ‘levelling up’ across communities.
Engaging with all stakeholders from the start means social benefits can be embedded from the early planning and design stages of the project through to completion. It might mean we arrive at a slightly more complex project, but working toward a shared social goal can provide opportunities to explore new initiatives, access new funding streams, and ultimately deliver a better, joined-up outcome.
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.