“The outer boundary does not confer any special planning or regulatory status”
Tax-break industrial sites with relaxed planning rules could be set up anywhere in the South Hams or on Dartmoor as part of Plymouth’s new freeport, it has emerged. The Government has set a vast boundary for the project which stretches from Devonport to Dartmouth, Salcombe to Okehampton, and incorporates all of the moor and the entire South Hams.
Ministers have revealed the extensive boundary for the freeport on a map, leading to concerns being raised from some environmentalists and critics of the freeport programme. It came as a surprise because it had been said that the freeport would involve just three Plymouth sites: at Oceansgate in Devonport, Sherford and Langage.
But it has now been explained that these are what are termed “tax sites”, where businesses can benefit from a range of tax benefits including paying less when buying land and avoiding National Insurance payments for newly employed workers. The three sites are also what is called “customs sites”, where businesses don’t have to pay tariffs on some goods they import.
There can only be three tax sites, and there must be at least one customs site, or “free zone”, in any freeport. But the freeport company could seek to create more customs sites within the extensive outer boundary.
However, the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport stressed it is “categorically not the case” that the entire area on the map has been earmarked for development or has any special planning status. A spokesperson said: “The outer boundary does not confer any special planning or regulatory status.”
The freeport explained that any new customs site would still need to fit within a “rigorous planning process”, including the suitability of the area for any businesses, and existing local authority restrictions and prohibitions. In Dartmoor’s case this would mean it having to fit with it being within a national park and an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).
But an individual new customs site could, in theory, benefit from relaxed planning regulation. The Government’s own website highlights relaxed planning rules for customs sites. It said freeports will “provide a supportive planning environment for the development of tax and customs sites through an extension of permitted development rights and incentivising use of local development orders.”
Permitted development rights allow certain building works and changes of use to be carried out without the need for a full planning application. And local development orders allow local authorities to give permitted development rights for specific types of development in defined locations.
The freeport boundary maps published by the Government drew concern on social media and from some commentators. Twitter campaigner Stan Fontan called them “deregulation zones” and in the Guardian, writer George Monbiot questioned why the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport boundary needed to be so extensive and said that what the boundary means is “as clear as mud”, criticising the Government for “opacity” around freeports. PlymouthLive has also been approached by readers asking what it all means.
A spokesperson for Plymouth and South Devon Freeport explained that the furthest permitted distance between any two sites in a freeport is 45km, hence the outer boundary. The spokesperson said: “Only three tax sites will ever be created as part of the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport and these were defined at bid stage and confirmed with the Government during both the outline and full business case process. Two sites (South Yard and Sherford) have been designated and one (Langage) is to be designated in the autumn.
“No further tax sites will be allowed – we have included the maximum number of tax sites permissible (three) as part of the bidding process and these have been confirmed by the Government.”
But the spokesperson confirmed that “dependent on need” the freeport could look to HM Revenue and Customs to designate further custom sites within the outer boundary in the future. However, the spokesperson stressed: “To be clear, any planning for customs sites would follow the standard rigorous planning processes including suitability of the area, local authority restrictions and prohibitions including those in the national park and AONBs, and in consultation and agreement with relevant parties.
“Planning for any future custom site(s) will follow the usual planning processes. The current freeport sites are covered under the Plymouth and South West Devon Joint Local Plan.”
The Plymouth and South Devon Freeport is one of only eight freeports planned for England by the Government. It is expected to provide an economic boost to the region, deliver thousands of jobs and encourage millions of pounds of inward investment to Plymouth, South Hams and the wider region.
The freeport’s outline business case is set to be approved by the Government and it is now under the control of a new company called Plymouth and South Devon Freeport Ltd. This is a private company limited by guarantee without share capital, currently led by interim chair Adrian Bratt, executive director at Princess Yachts, and interim chief executive Richard May, currently head of Oceansgate and Marine Investment for the city council.
It is a condition of freeport designation that an independent company is formed which has a chair and board of directors. Its directors are from Plymouth, Devon and South Hams councils, and private companies.