There are plenty of articles which set out the "hard facts" of Freeports - the locations, tax benefits etc. - but are we all missing the real point? One of the key objectives of the UK government was to "create hotbeds for innovation".
The bidding prospectus said:
“Freeports will focus private and public-sector investment in R&D, they will be dynamic environments that bring together innovators to collaborate in new ways, while offering controlled spaces to develop and trial new ideas and technologies.”
So isn’t it right that we should be saying more about Freeports being catalysts for wider change? There is a real opportunity here for different sectors to come together and innovate.
The bidding prospectus identified three distinct areas of focus:
- Port-specific innovation
This directly benefits air, rail or maritime ports and includes autonomous cranes and cargo-handling equipment, digital security, and customs software that can track goods across a broader sea.
- Port-related innovation
This indirectly benefits air, rail or maritime ports or their supply chain and includes autonomous transport, modern methods of construction, and industrial decarbonisation.
- Other innovation
This is innovation unrelated to ports but which can take advantage of being close to or affected by Freeports more generally, for example pharmaceuticals, quantum technologies, advanced materials, robotics and AI.
If the Freeports meet the brief, they should be building and reinforcing the capability for R&D in their local regions; linking start-ups, businesses and ports with academic institutions and regulators; and driving the development, testing and application of new ideas and technologies.
So, what kinds of innovation are really needed? Well, a good starting place is to consider the problems that Freeports will face and how to solve those problems. In the Solent region, the key issues must be transport, infrastructure, technology and the environment:
- The Solent Freeport website says that over £77.5 billion worth of goods pass through the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. If this is to increase, there will be a need to push for the electrification and automation of vehicles in and around the Freeport to reduce pollution and ease congestion.
- Is there an opportunity to get some commuter traffic off the roads and onto waterways? The proposed Fawley Waterside development is exploring a passenger ferry service as an additional mode of transport for its future residents – it would be great if the local councils could explore an extension of such a service to other developments and locations.
- The Midlands and the North also rely on connectivity to international markets through Solent but this means trunk roads get clogged with freight. Surely this is an ideal focus to drive investment and research into hydrogen transport, especially in view of the government’s “10 Point Plan” having earmarked £20 million to be invested this year in freight trials.
- The ports themselves are aiming towards decarbonisation and digitalisation, and the “Clean Maritime Demonstration Programme” should already be laying the foundation for a network of projects to develop clean maritime technology. Last October saw the launch of the ‘Decarbonising Port and Harbours Innovation Network’ which has as its objective raising the profile of ports and harbours in accelerating maritime transport’s transition to net zero by 2050 by giving clear direction for R&D investment – let’s capitalise on this ambition in setting up the new Freeport sites.
Freeports are uniquely positioned to connect economic advantage with progress. The real success will be if Freeports bridge the gap between industry and academia, and turn trading opportunities into opportunities for innovative domestic and international initiatives.
These are the aspects of Freeports which are so exciting.