Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Suffolk County Council (SCC) has been busy in recent months, bringing community, university, and business leaders together to restore confidence and rebuild the economy as the country extricates itself from the Brexit and Covid shambles. Focusing attention on optimising the potential of the region’s coast and ports, including improving some neglected infrastructure, will be crucial.

Firstly, public and private sector business and local government leaders across the eastern region have set out their joint vision for an innovative new Freeport on the East coast, linking the Ports of Felixstowe and Harwich. Both owned by Hutchison Ports, and employing thousands of highly skilled workers, it would be a strategic hub linking UK importers and exporters with suppliers and customers across the globe at the heart of vital trading routes to Asia and Northern Europe.

Already Europe’s largest container port, handling some of the world’s biggest container ships, Felixstowe is a super-efficient operation, as I was lucky enough to discover during a private tour a couple of years ago. There is no doubt that developing further links with Harwich will create an impressive partnership, whilst continuing to respect the wide range of wildlife, including seal habitats.

Pioneering the next generation of ports to drive and support the government’s local and national regeneration strategies, Freeport East will build on excellent road and rail links to the Midlands and North of England, currently the destination for almost a third of Felixstowe’s throughput.

Creating a manufacturing, green energy, and innovation hub, capitalising on the latest advances in digital technology and scientific centres across the region, as well as the Galloper Windfarm maintenance base at Harwich, Freeport East is ideally positioned to lead on decarbonisation of the country’s energy needs, boosting economic growth.

Work is now in hand to formulate a detailed bid in response to the government’s Freeport prospectus.

Clemence Cheng, Executive Director of Hutchison Ports, said:

“The combination of these two ports offers the UK a unique opportunity in the post-Brexit world, sitting as they do at the main junction between the UK’s principal trade route to and from the Far East and key freight links to Northern Europe.

“Together with the leading edge technical skills that come with the partnership with universities, including Cambridge, this combination can serve as a powerful magnet to bring new investment into the UK, and the immediate area around the ports.”

Meanwhile, in a positive boost for Lowestoft, the Government finally approved the strong business case to construct the new Gulf Wing bridge, allowing the council to access £73.39m funding from the Department of Transport. Construction should now start on the town’s third crossing next spring, with a view to opening in the summer of 2023.

Also in East Suffolk, funds have now been committed to refurbishing the bailey bridge crossing the River Blyth, connecting Walberswick with Southwold. Deemed unsafe, it was closed in October 2018 for temporary repairs, reopening that December, subject to developing a long term strategy. Now completed by Suffolk Highways, a detailed review of the bridge’s sustainability will ensure its viability in the years to come, with essential works planned for 2021.

Cllr. Richard Smith was delighted at the news:

“The bridge is an incredibly important structure in the east of the county, used by thousands of visitors and locals exploring coastal walks, or shopping and working between the two communities. Its refurbishment is a top priority, although requiring another temporary closure for safety reasons, but we will engage with local parish and town councils, as well as key stakeholders to minimise the impact.”

As Brexit pressures accelerate, Suffolk’s Public Sector Leaders have monitored its impact through a special Task Force, recruiting two specialist Trade Business Advisors in 2019, planning mitigation measures for residents and local businesses. It has now agreed to invest a further £490,000 over the next three years to support continued strategic growth.

The money includes £140,000 from the Government’s Brexit fund, with the balance of £350,000 from a pooled business rates budget. It will be used by Suffolk Chamber of Commerce to strengthen proactive engagement with EU businesses, providing tailored guidance to local enterprises looking to enter international markets, as well as protect their interests under new rules applying from 1st January.

Cllr Matthew Hicks, SCC’s Leader, who also chairs the Public Sector Leaders Group, explained:

“This is an investment in the future prosperity of Suffolk’s economy and our communities, supporting business supply chains both locally and across the rest of the UK. Our ambition has always been to work collaboratively to minimise the risks posed by Brexit, preparing businesses to maximise the opportunities with information and counselling, alleviating the anxiety and uncertainty to drive growth in employment and skills.

“Our aim is to expand long term capacity, reaping the benefits of future trade agreements.” 

Suffolk exports nearly half a billion pounds worth of goods per annum. Key issues in future will include border controls and supply-chain resilience, as well as access to new markets, and arrangements with freight forwarders and businesses in the logistics/shipping industries.