Friday 17 November saw the West Country Voices live debate on Plymouth & South Devon Freeport. Held within the spectacular St Mary’s Church in Totnes, the event was attended by around 80 people in person and an even larger number online. The livestream was not without some problems, but it was an ambitious project, blending remote contributions from the panel (chaired by George Monbiot), freeport researcher, David Powell (based in The Hague) and questions from the audience. It was an event put on in the public interest, at expense and effort from an independent citizen news provider and, as such, should be applauded. In that one event I felt there was more information and exploration of the Freeport issue than we have had from any public bodies or other regional media.
I was a member of the panel for the evening. I have been investigating the Freeport – as both a resident of South Hams and as a writer (for West Country Voices and the Totnes Pulse amongst other journals). I had been trying to get some straight answers from South Hams on their decision making and involvement for many weeks in the run up to the discussion. As well as answering questions from the audience, I made a statement outlining the research I had conducted and the unanswered questions that remained.
I have always made sure that I research something myself: no matter what others may say or claim on any one issue. I do not claim to ‘have knowledge’ of a subject unless I have pursued it myself. I do not put my name to other people’s ideas or concerns unless I have explored them thoroughly from a sceptical, ground zero, party neutral, evidence based standpoint. Until I received a copy of the SHDC Corporate Consultation in mid October, my knowledge was scant and I had little to go on, beyond being alerted to ‘issues’ with Freeports through a public event. I needed to find out for myself. As a result, my findings here are from my own experiences and questioning.
Here is the statement I made at the event on 17 November:
“Just a few weeks ago I read this year’s South Hams Council Corporate Strategies. These key documents had surprisingly little to say on what the Council regards as,
“one of the largest economic development projects undertaken in South Hams”.
But there was a lonely glossy sentence that caught my eye:
“Number 7 Primary Aim: to continue to maximise the benefits of the Freeport and the business it brings to our area.”
We’ve all been burned by the elusive ‘Brexit benefits’ so I was puzzled about what these Freeport benefits could be- especially as the Freeport is in its very earliest stages.
I dug deeper – combing through council minutes, agendas, addendums, and I emailed questions to many elements of the Council. I summarise my personal findings here:
- Transparency (lack of)
- Inconsistency (lots of)
- Benefits (still looking)
So let me start first with transparency:
What do we residents know?
Personally, four weeks ago I knew very little. I was aware of the odd article on the formation of the Freeport over the past few years, portrayed in mostly glowing terms. Further reading revealed that cash-strapped, service-cutting Devon County Council had put a borrowed £15 million into the Freeport. Cash- strapped, service-cutting South Hams has put in over £5 million. Perhaps – as for many of us- that was the full extent of my Freeport knowledge.
But few of us – apart from South Hams Councillors – will have seen the picture that emerges from the minutes, council documents and agendas of the past two years:
The huge government pressure applied behind the scenes for Councils to take on the government’s ideologically-driven, evidence-thin, Freeport agenda. The ongoing challenges of vanishing government council funding. Veiled subtexts contained deep in council minutes such as this one which says:
“[If the Council were to have no involvement in the Freeport it] would have ramifications with government and partners on other agendas, such as the County Deal.”
My investigations into the Freeport and South Hams show that someone, somewhere, wanted it to happen very badly. And the government leant on councils to make it happen.
So I started to put what I assumed would be a series of simple questions to the South Hams Council Executive.
I have been told to wait until 30 November for a comment from the Council Leader, to be delivered during the time-pressured Council Executive meeting. But with the greatest of respect, I believe residents deserve more than a ‘comment’.
In response to my questions, the Council couldn’t even give me a simple date for when the South Hams public consultations on the Freeport had happened. I simply received no answer on that (despite asking multiple people, multiple times).
My questions uncovered the fact that South Hams and Devon County Council had already signed a legally binding agreement to form the Freeport. So I asked the Council to clarify the liabilities, costs and damages that could be incurred if they were to withdraw from this already signed agreement. There was no answer on this.
My questions did however prompt a response from the Council that there had in fact been concerns and questions raised by Council members about this Freeport partnership. So I asked the council to clarify what these questions and concerns were, and when they were raised.
My questioning revealed that the Council had now set up a ‘Task and Finish group’ to report on the risks and benefits of the Freeport. Puzzled about how it could happen that the Council would retrospectively need to investigate the risks and benefits after already committing to a legally binding agreement, I asked them whether the findings could have any possible impact on withdrawal, partial withdrawal or modification of the agreement already in place.
I have had no answer.
I asked the Communications team, I asked the Executive and key councillors, I asked the multi-hyphenated ‘Directors’ at South Hams, I cc’d the CEO.
I was then directed firmly to submit an Environmental Information Request (known as EIR) under Freedom Of Information (known as FOI).
The problem is that EIR and FOI should be the last resort- not the first. Councils can easily redact information, or claim ‘commercial sensitivity’ prevents them from providing it. South Hams also has a Scheme of Publication which would enable it to freely provide information of all depths, including consultations – if it so wished.
One of the most common concerns raised about Freeports is one regarding transparency and scrutiny.
The publicly-sanitised published Business Case for the Freeport of course has all ‘commercially sensitive’ information removed- making it virtually useless.
These issues go right to the heart of the problem with public/private partnerships. In practice, the corporate confidentiality of private companies trumps our public access to information.
We have no sight of the Freeport’s regulatory and legal protections for environment, planning and rights. We all know that already the government is dropping regulation at the rate of knots in all aspects of our lives – even human rights law is now a target. All we have regarding the Freeport is the word ‘assurance’ from the Council. I think we would be wise to demand actual evidence.
Throughout my dealings with South Hams, I have been led to believe that the ‘Freeport deal is done.’ (Remember this idea of a ‘done deal’ – it’s important for later.)
Totnes Town Councillors got the same treatment just a few weeks ago with their first meaningful engagement on the Freeport from South Hams: a slide presentation on the Freeport, followed by questions on what was made clear to be a ‘done deal’.
So if it is ‘done’, just how good is this Freeport ‘deal’ we are signed up to?
Fuzzy language surrounds the South Hams description of the Freeport partnership: the Freeport documentation is peppered with a word salad of Net Zero ‘ambition’.
South Hams states it is thrilled to have ‘an ‘opportunity’ … to shape the goals and the work of the Freeport to the priorities of the Council” in which the Council is ““encouraging” the Freeport company to provide comprehensive reports on its activities to the local communities”
It’s becoming clear to me, at least, who wears the trousers in this legal partnership – and who may have failed to ensure they were wearing any trousers in the first place. It’s also clear that there is no legal obligation for the Freeport to provide comprehensive reports to us.
How was the boundary of the Freeport – that reaches right across Dartmoor – decided? The Freeport Bidding Prospectus states in relation to the 45km boundary limit:
“This means that, unless a very strong case is made [with] clear economic rationale for why the Freeport Outer Boundary is defined as it is [it] will fail the bidding process. Bids judged to be designed simply to maximise the area contained within the Outer Boundary without clear economic rationale [will fail]“
So what was the very strong case that was made forcefully enough to succeed in the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport bid?
Will South Hams or Devon County Council let us see this strong economic rationale to include the whole of Dartmoor within the Freeport boundary?
There are three sites involved with the Freeport:
The South Yard site – located near the Port
The Langage site – in close proximity to the A38 Expressway
The Sherford site – located on the opposite side of the Expressway to Langage
There should be no doubt how important Langage is to the whole enterprise. In fact, the Freeport proposal trumpets Langage as its green hydrogen centrepiece.
But it seems there are already problems with this site and information on what exactly is happening is scant.
Digging back into Council documents, I found a council report from September 2022 on the Approval of making a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) for Langage land. It states,
“The CPO Land at Langage is integral to the success of the Freeport. As set out in the Freeport  Full Business Case, the Langage site including the CPO Land cannot be replicated anywhere else. A detailed triangulation of the Freeport… was undertaken at the very start of the Freeport Bid. This showed that the inclusion of South Yard, Sherford and Langage were a) all required to hit minimum area thresholds and b) were the only allocated sites that were policy compliant and deliverable within the timeframes required.“
So I think we should be told: what is the timeframe for Langage? Is it falling behind? Is the Compulsory Purchase Order going ahead? Are there issues with this land? It looks like Langage is holding things up.
Because in September ‘22 there was clearly an issue, and one that demanded the major step of a Compulsory Purchase Order.
So it’s clear that Langage is critical to the Freeport, and that without absolute clarity to the contrary from the Council, we should assume that Langage remains a risk.
And this also then calls into question the Council’s assertion that the Freeport ‘is a done deal’.
Because on the basis of this Council document, without Langage- there is no Freeport. The deal is not done until Langage is done.
That means we could have problems on multiple fronts with what the Council is or is not letting us know:
- Langage could present an existential risk to the Freeport
- The Freeport deal may not be ‘done’ and, therefore, that impression or statement should not be made, as it would be incorrect
- What further commitments – financial, planning, capacity and resource – are cash-strapped South Hams and cash-strapped Devon County Council going to have to commit to make Langage actually happen , as it must, to have the Freeport?
And there are further questions, too:
Will the Langage site ever deliver the green hydrogen plant that forms the Freeport centrepiece? There’s precious little hard information on this, either.
And how are vehicles going to be accessing sites such as Langage? Will it be necessary to build additional roads and structures? There are cost, planning and environmental considerations– a road has to cross multiple pieces of land. How much delay should we expect? How much is all this delay going to cost- and who will end up paying?
Because time is another issue with the Freeport. The Financial Times reported the news (ahead of the Autumn Statement) that Jeremy Hunt was looking to extend some of the tax breaks for Freeports from 2026 to 2031. [Which he has done. Ed] According to the FT,
“experts, executives and regional leaders were concerned…that the [Freeport] policy as drawn up represented a “cliff edge”. Companies that sign up to build premises in a freeport may still take several years to gain planning permission, construct their factories or warehouse and for them to become operational.”
It’s as if they were talking about Langage itself.
Uncertainty is a terrible thing for a highly ambitious economic development project. It cannot live or die dependent on a government ideology. At the moment the whole Freeport edifice is built on the thin air of tax breaks and favourable business conditions. If governments turn left – what next for the legacy agendas of the hard right?
And meanwhile I am still waiting for an answer from the Council on these elusive Freeport benefits I’ve enjoyed this year.
And now you need to realise something clearly.
In the eyes of the Freeport, we are not stakeholders.
Yes, the Freeport involves South Hams land and infrastructure.
Yes, it uses (so far) over £5 million underwritten by you and me from South Hams and £15 million from Devon council.
Yes, it involves legal obligations and costs and damages that can be levied against our cash-strapped council.
But us? No. Residents are not technically stakeholders.
Plymouth City Council, Devon County Council and South Hams District Council are.
The Universities of Plymouth and Exeter are.
Princess Yachts, Carlton Power and Babcock International are.
The Port Operators, the Ministry of Defence are.
But you and me? We are not.
The stakeholders have been on the inside of information and documentation on the Freeport all along, for years. And meanwhile, underwriters to this scheme – South Hams Council and Devon County Council – face unprecedented reductions in government funding.
On its own website, South Hams states,
“The Council has taken a hard look at where it can save money to keep balancing the books.”
One might remark that this ‘hard look’ has been cast more on its residents than the private pockets of the Freeport partnership.
Meanwhile, South Hams Members and officers have multi-hyphenated job roles and titles that are so long they require semicolons. This appropriation of resource and capacity to serve the Freeport makes me wonder if resource and capacity is not serving other council functions or the needs of its residents.
I’m not into conspiracy- just transparency, value for public money, and the desire for clarity on what we should expect from our elected Council leaders. The levels of dismay amongst residents and Councillors is concerning, and indicates a substantial mishandling of engagement. It’s indicative of a lack of meaningful consultation and the transparency that that would have brought.
I want to end by quoting from Princess Yachts’ website. For those who don’t realise, Princess Yachts are a key, private company in this Freeport ‘partnership’ whose access to the Freeport’s favourable business conditions – who knows- may have contributed to it being snapped up by a US based private equity firm earlier this year. If you go onto their website you are greeted by these words;
“Your yacht is an extension of yourself. A statement of your lifestyle. She needs to deliver unforgettable experiences for you, your family and friends.”
That’s what Princess Yachts are about.
But for the residents of our cash-strapped Councils, their core business and concern is not yachts. The ‘extension of ourselves’ ,as residents, are our sick relatives, children in care, families living in poverty and substandard housing, a mental health crisis amongst the young, a collapse of social care for people with disabilities, the crumbling of educational infrastructure, the degradation of the environment and vanishing public spaces, the elderly relatives unable to get warm, eat hot food, or even have company.
The only ‘unforgettable experience’ our Council should be concerned about is providing dignity, wellbeing and quality of life to its residents.
And it is the great tragedy of this Freeports ‘partnership’, that even at this incredibly early stage, our Councils seem compromised in their core purpose, their openness, and their democratic duties.
And our Council – South Hams, who were invited to participate here this evening- isn’t even here to help us understand quite what it is they signed us up for.