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 South Hams district council (SHDC) last week.
“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 SHDC’s jurisdiction, and the council is a partner in the project along with Plymouth city council and Devon county council.
At the SHDC meeting, South Hams’ councillors were asked to agree to 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: “Teesside is an example of how a freeport should not be run.”
He blamed the local authority, which initially controlled the freeport, for the problems as it decided to pass its interest in the company to two private development firms.
“(Teesside) is not controlled by the local authority, which our freeport is,” he said, adding that SHDC would be able to review its position in 2027 if the freeport is not a success.
The Green councillors also queried using public money in a partnership with private companies.
Cllr Hodgson asked why public funding was needed to support private firms, a view shared by Cllr Allen who demanded assurances that the money would be well spent.
In response, 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.”
According to reports this week, Plymouth city council has said an “unnamed local company” intends to set up a ‘logistics facility’ on a 7.9-hectare site near Sherford.
The local authority, which is giving SHDC the cash to buy the land, said it “could create a base for hundreds of skilled jobs”.
Plymouth council was given almost £20m for the freeport project from the government’s Department of Levelling Up in November.
In addition, private firm Carlton Power (the owners of the Langage Energy Park) last week announced that it had secured funding for a hydrogen hub that will be based at the freeport’s Langage site.
Hailed by the company as a major project that will play “a key role in the development of the UK’s hydrogen economy”, the funding will reportedly enable Carlton Power to move forward with the construction of the hub, which is expected to be operational by 2025.
Richard May, CEO of the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport, said the hub would be “the first of its kind not only for Plymouth and South Devon but for the region”.
Sir Gary Streeter MP, whose South West Devon constituency will be home to the hub, said he welcomed the investment into the area, adding that it would play “a crucial role” in supporting other businesses to reach net zero and create jobs.