Councillors urged to set aside their doubts

Decision-makers in the South Hams have been urged to set aside their doubts about a new tax-busting ‘freeport’ zone in Plymouth.

“It’s there whether we like it or not,” Cllr John Birch (Lib Dem, Totnes) told a meeting of the district council. “The question is whether or not we wish to play a part in shaping its future.

“We should use our influence as one of its founding members.”

The freeport arrangement for Plymouth means tax breaks for companies working within it, with the aim of unlocking millions of pounds in grants and attracting new business to the city and surrounding areas.

Supporters say it could mean 3,500 new jobs for Plymouth and the South Hams.

Key areas for development at Sherford and Langage fall within South Hams Council’s jurisdiction, and the council is a partner in the project along with Plymouth City Council and Devon County Council working alongside private stakeholders including Devonport Dockyard’s owners Babcock and luxury boatbuilders Princess Yachts.

Babcock has already scooped a multi-million-pound government contract to build armoured cars in Plymouth.

The freeport has been described by its supporters as a 25-year project which will transform the economy.

South Hams’ councillors were asked to agree a long list of measures to support the project. But Green representatives Georgina Allen (Totnes) and Jacqi Hodgson (Dartington and Staverton) asked for assurances that if the freeport project failed, the district would not be left “in the lurch.”

They cited the example of the Teesside freeport, which has been beset by problems, but Cllr Birch told them: “Tees is an example of how a freeport should not be run.”

He said having South Hams, Plymouth and Devon councils involved would help ensure good governance.

The Green councillors also queried using public money in a partnership with private companies.

Cllr Hodgson asked: “Why do we need public funding to support private companies who are being awarded such huge contracts? Why can’t they fund this themselves?”

And Cllr Allen added: “What justification do we have for taxpayers’ money being channeled into Babcock and Princess? What assurances do we have that this money is well spent?

“Why have the Liberal Democrats in this chamber weakly decided that the freeport is okay? It is not okay. I think the biggest threat to the reputation of this council is to stay in.”

Cllr Birch said he understood that freeports were not being asked to make any payments to private companies, adding: “The freeport will continue without us if we decide to walk away. It is important that we play our part.

“We must ensure that it is a success and something we can be proud of. We owe that to the people we represent.”

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