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Port of Bristol: at the heart of the south-west economy

24 February 2021: In an endeavour to develop the local economy and build its reputation as a location for sector excellence, three huge sites based around the Port of Bristol have been put forward for freeport status.

The West of England Combined Authority has submitted its bid to the government for freeport status in the area anchored around the Port of Bristol with additional sites at Avonmouth - Severnside, Junction 21 Enterprise Area and Gravity Smart Campus.

“The government is very committed to its concept of freeports. It sees this very much as part of the global Britain agenda. It is about how we, as a nation, develop what we have been incredibly successful at over generations, turbocharge our international trading relationships, and, in doing so, develop what we need to do as a country to move forward,” says Tim Bowles, Metro Mayor of the West of England, and previously local councillor for Winterbourne in South Gloucestershire.

“We were very clear about what the government was looking for. Firstly, the government wants to see freeports develop into national hubs for global trade and investment across the UK. That is something we committed to as a region, and we know we are an attractive area for investors” says Mayor Bowles. 

“Secondly, the government wants to see regeneration and job creation. COVID has brought that into even sharper focus. We’re looking at creating 50,000 good, sustainable, long-term, well-paid jobs,” he says.

The third criterion from government for a successful freeport bid is innovation. “As we move forward into a more competitive global marketplace, being at the forefront of innovation is going to be vital,” says Mayor Bowles. “But all of these criteria are already very much part of the West of England’s DNA.”

He points to the local industrial strategy, its vision in terms of international trade and investment, and the efforts already being made to identify existing and potential markets. The region has worked hard to identify those areas in the West of England in which regeneration will have to take place before they will become attractive as locations for foreign direct investment and investment from around the UK. “We need to show people that we are pleased to live, work, invest and innovate in this region,” he says.

Innovation has had some very specific flavours in the West of England. The aerospace industry and its associated supply chain have a significant presence around the Filton area. The creative sector is also vibrant and strong, as is the professional services sector.

The Great Western Freeport, as it is called in the bid, would be the icing on the cake. “This opportunity will be key to our economic renewal post COVID,” says Mayor Bowles, “but even without COVID we would have been excited for a freeport to be developed in the Westcountry.”

What would a freeport in Bristol say to the rest of the world about this location and its willingness to do business internationally? “We're lucky, as a region, not to be overly exposed in a particular sector,” says Mayor Bowles. “What has made our region so successful in the last few years is the way in which innovators, academics and entrepreneurs interact and work together and to collaborate.” He mentions by way of example the National Composites Centre, which is one of seven centres that form the UK’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

The creative sector in the West of England is not just about creating recognisable creative brands, but also being the genesis of the Virtual Reality Lab and the National Robotics Lab. These technologies are pervading engineering, energy, manufacturing, and many other sectors besides. 

So how can we relate all these assets to freeports and how do they support the bid? “All these advances keep us at the forefront of a competitive market,” says Mayor Boles. “Part of our unique selling point in our bid is that we can combine those innovators and academics, bring them together to create new products and services, but then deliver the missing manufacturing element and create jobs at scale to help reinvigorate deprived areas in the region.”

While research excellence in the region is not in doubt, the development aspect needs investment, nurturing, and it needs to be hosted in a supported community – hence the freeport. “Those manufacturing jobs, in some instances, have been offshored,” he points out. “With our freeport, we would show our area is open for business and a great location for those manufacturing jobs.”

The freeport bid is not localised. The port is a vital element but so is the hinterland around the port. Existing infrastructure, clusters, sectoral expertise, talent, workforce and innovation will be drawn into the freeports concept to generate the opportunity to capitalise on research and development.

“We've got a site that ready to go in terms of big-scale manufacturing in those new technologies,” he says, “but while we're not in front in terms of unit manufacturing costs, we want to add value to the manufacturing process in terms of innovation.” He cites the aerospace sector as an example of this thinking. 

So, what might a freeport unlock for ICAEW members? “This is an opportunity for the UK to start from scratch,” he says. “But the tariff aspect of freeports is going to be critical.” He points to potential concessions concerning tariffs, customs duties, business rates, stamp duty, land taxes, insurance, capital allowances and various other concessions as being vital to being able to attract investors.

“Ultimately, the key to this is going to be that ability for us to be able to attract new manufacturers who can use those benefits, but we have a great story to tell to encourage businesses to invest here for a whole host of reasons rather just been lured in by financial inducements. That’s what makes the Great Western Freeport stand out from the pack.” 

But manufacturing is not typically an SME endeavour, will there be opportunities and assistance for smaller companies too or is the West of England focusing on large manufacturers of high tariff goods? He responds that an SME’s proximity to a primary manufacturer can only be a good thing and that there may well be supply chain opportunities, possibly in new industries, but not necessarily in the immediate vicinity. “Those supply chains will evolve and develop,” he says.

So too will the talent pool. And that will beget more investment, more development and more ideas. Hopefully, freeports generally will become an outward manifestation of all the previously unseen R&D of the last generation, and become a series of increasingly vibrant ecosystems for the UK.