Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Partners Say Thames Freeport Can Have Major Economic and Environmental Benefits for the UK

Employment Holds the Key to Prosperity
Shipping News Feature

UK – Nobody could accuse the companies behind the bid for a new Freeport on the banks of the River Thames of being slow off the mark or lacking in enthusiasm with regard to the proposed scheme. With Brexit out of the way the hype is building around a development which its supporters say could transform the economy and employment prospects of the region.

It might however be unwise to be overly pessimistic about the project given the track record of those concerned, namely DP World and Forth Ports who, in a vivid demonstration of solidarity, are pressing their case as they bid for the construction and management rights.

The pair have unveiled their ‘Regeneration through job creation’ vision for creating a trading centre to ‘deliver dispersed wealth’, just as the old Port of London did in its heyday. They point out that of the sites of the planned Freeport, Thurrock, is among the country’s top 25 most skills-deprived areas, and the neighbourhoods surrounding Tilbury are amongst the top 10% by way of overall deprivation. Meanwhile Barking and Dagenham is ranked in the top five local authorities for deprivation and the borough’s unemployment rate is 74% higher than the national average.

This comes after decades of Government initiatives targeting growth and regeneration across the largest development area in the UK, the Thames Gateway, a site where DP World has established the country’s newest deep water port, and Forth Ports have been investing in such as Tilbury2. With all the talk of the Northern Powerhouse and regenerating the English heartlands it should be noted that it is London and the South East that continues to attract most trade, with its burgeoning population and rising property prices.

The Freeport conurbation, which we described in some detail in November, is planned to include both ports plus the Ford Dagenham based engine plant, with Ford quoted as saying it plans to build on its advanced technology capabilities to electrify, connect and automate vehicle solutions in-and-around the Freeport to reduce pollution and ease congestion.

Its backers say that a Thames Freeport will be a magnet for new investment, jobs, skills development and the adoption of greener technology. They claim that their initial modelling suggests that a Freeport will unlock more than 20,000 new, better paid jobs and many more through local supply chains, while securing over £400 million in port infrastructure, which will lead to a doubling of port capacity.

With almost 1,000 acres of land ready for development, much with planning consent already secured, it is said that no other port cluster in the south of England can come close to matching the offer to deliver meaningful economic change and linked community benefits in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Certainly with the two ports working together they can rightfully claim to be connected to both deep sea and short sea markets coping with all traffic types, particularly pan continental container traffic and European RoRo and feeder services, a recipe it would seem ideal for the workings of a Freeport.

Despite the adjective heavy plaudits of the partners the proposed site benefits from both current and future road and rail infrastructure, linking sites along the estuary to the heart of the largest market in Europe via operational wharves with the intent to help reshape local urban logistics, alleviate road congestion, and reduce pollution along the A13 corridor.

A Freeport could be key to catalysing the Thames’ net zero transformation, including the promotion of investments in clean energy generation, such as hydrogen fuel production, storage and fuelling infrastructure, as well as providing a beneficial Customs duty haven for up and coming manufacturing entrepreneurs with an eye on export markets.

As both ports are keen to emphasise, they have history in this market, DP World began as a free trade zone in Jebel Ali, while Tilbury was a Freeport until 2012. The two say they can utilise their tried-and-tested track-and-trace technology as a viable platform to ensure a Thames Freeport will be a new centre of excellence for the country as they electrify, automate and digitise the future.

Photo: How times change. This shot is the site of the old Ford Engine Plant with jetty taken a few years before WW11. Courtesy Ford Motor Company Photo Archive.