Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
Free Ports, Free Trade Zones to give them their proper name, are fast becoming one of the hottest issues of the Conservative Leadership Contest. In fact, of all of the policy ideas being floated by candidates, they could be seen as the litmus test of their commitment to Brexit.
Free Ports exist around the world and take a slightly different form depending on where they are. From South Carolina to Singapore, and from Dubai to Dalian, economic growth, trade and job creation are supercharged by creating areas inside a country’s national borders, which fall outside of its customs border.
Hard financial incentives like tax breaks, tariff inversion, and R&D funding are combined with measures like simplified planning, expedited customs processed and express visas to make these zones extremely attractive to business. They have been used to create growth in previously undeveloped areas, but in post-Brexit Britain they can be used to turn around the fortunes of our least competitive regions.
Since the idea of creating Free Zones when we leave the EU was first mooted by Rishi Sunak, the MP for Richmond whose North Yorkshire constituency borders my Tees Valley Region, they have caused great excitement in pro-Brexit and pro-market circles, and all the disdain you would expect from the Left.
While Conservatives, some of the more sensible Labourites and even Scottish Nationalists have got behind the idea, seeing the jobs and growth it can yield, some individuals who would like to see the economy operated as an arm of the Government have trotted out the same old, tried and tested anti-trade tropes.
Free Ports are about creating areas where manufacturing will flourish, particularly in industries like renewables and chemicals, where British companies need a level playing field with foreign competitors. They would mean thousands of well-paid jobs, all of which protect our world-leading employment rights. Plus, even when you take into account the cost of tax breaks, the Treasury would make a net gain.
Not quite the dens of tax avoidance and warehouses full of stolen art that the left would have you believe Free Zones area. Some have even gone so far as to suggest they would endanger worker’s safety and environmental protections. The proposal I have presented to both candidates sets out, clearly, a system of economic regeneration for use in a developed country, not the dystopian vision certain parties have tried to create
My policy ‘white paper’ offers our next Prime Minister one of the tools they need to rebalance the UK’s economy and let some of the poorest regions stand on their own two feet. It isn’t right for proud people, people who make things, to have to rely on London and the south east to subsidise their public services, and it is laughable to think wonks in Westminster will have the answer to this.
Free Zones are a policy developed in the North for the North, and other regions that haven’t experienced the growth London has. My proposal suggests up to six possible sites across the UK, which could create 70,000 jobs and add £4 billion to the economy.
As the Mayor of the Tees Valley, you would expect me to put my region first, but this policy really comes into its own on a national scale. However, the idea of a pilot Free Zone on Teesside makes sense for two reasons, it would have the largest positive economic impact of such area in the UK, and thanks to the South Tees Development Corporation we have a secure site, next to a port, where work can start tomorrow.
I have made no secret of my support for Boris Johnson in this contest, because I believe he has the positive global vision that post-Brexit Britain needs, and he’s not just saying this, he really believes it. I have also made no attempt to hide my admiration for Jeremy Hunt, whose service in the Cabinet has been exemplary.
Free Zones, as well as being a huge opportunity for Britain, can pay dividends for both candidates. By unequivocally backing a policy of Free Ports, with a pilot Zone in Teesside, Boris can take a step towards realising his vision for Brexit, while Jeremy can remove any doubts about his commitment to leaving.
You can read my full policy proposal here.