Freeport status: More bad news for Sefton, or the key to a better outcome?
The Chancellor’s budget announcement on Wednesday 3rd March confirmed that the Liverpool City Region has secured Freeport status.
Given that the bid was backed by Peel Ports, Peel Land & Property and their various partners, was the outcome ever really in doubt? After all, we know how fond they are of lobbying the government…
Three months prior to this, Sefton Council’s press release announced that they would be opposing the Liverpool City Region’s freeport bid, citing the negative impact on communities and the environment. They were the only borough to do so, primarily because Sefton bears the brunt of Peel Ports’ never ending quest for growth.
However, it also used the opportunity to offer up the Arup report into an “Inland Port and Connectivity Concept” as a way of achieving such growth in a sustainable manner.
Since this time, there has been little in the way of further publicity around this report and the solutions proposed within it.
This is something we have fed back to Sefton Council as we believe that everyone in south Sefton needs to be aware of these solutions in order to understand their relevance to our everyday lives. This is because issues around the Port of Liverpool – and access to and from it – are not exclusive to Rimrose Valley or the A5036 corridor.
They affect all of us.
For a summary of what this report focusses on – dynamic approaches to moving freight containers in and out of busy ports – including our initial take on things, you can view our previous article here.
Taking all of this into account and picking up on some useful information contained in correspondence with Highways England (see below), now feels like a good time to revisit the issue of port access, the Arup report and to consider it in the context of a freeport scenario.
Specifically, is freeport status yet another bad news story for Sefton communities emanating from the Port of Liverpool, or could it actually work in our favour?
In doing this, we’ve made some assumptions and one or two leaps of faith, but isn’t that what we need right now?
Why is freeport status relevant?
To answer this question, it is first important to understand exactly what freeports are.
In theory, at least, freeports encourage import, export and other commercial activity. For example, imports can enter a freeport with simplified customs checks and without paying tariffs. In turn, it is hoped that this would create jobs and other economic benefits in the surrounding area.
The Freeport concept, as with the alternative technologies proposed in the Arup report, is dependent on the formation of huge depots, or ‘enterprise zones’ where normal tax and customs rules do not apply.
The proposed locations of these sites have been widely reported and were listed in the LCR’s Freeport as:
Interestingly, one other location actually falls outside the Liverpool City Region:
The Salford site sits on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal and the context for its inclusion in the bid is discussed here.
It will come as no surprise to discover that Peel Land & Property has direct links to a number of these locations, meaning that not only with the Peel group benefit from greater activity coming through their port, they will profit at various other points along the way.
In any case, here are not one, but FOUR potential locations for the same kinds of inland depots, or hubs required by the solutions proposed in Arup’s report.
All have either established, or potential multi-modal opportunities – road / rail /water, which raises the obvious question: why could these not also serve as depots to receive freight containers by adding another technology into the mix – such as those proposed in Arup’s report?
The important point here is that we would not be starting from scratch in trying to identify these sites – the work has already been done – and it is happening, right now, whether we like it or not.
The locations of these enterprise zones are even more relevant when comparing it to Highways England’s road proposal.
There is a fundamental flaw with their solution: it doesn’t actually solve anything.
The ONLY idea Highways England has put forward (whether Option A or Option B in its original public consultation) involves moving HGVs via an already overloaded Switch Island to re-join an already overloaded section of the A5036 at Princess Way, leading to an already congested port entrance.
It is pure fantasy for Highways England or indeed anyone to maintain that this represents a good, long-term investment. It would be unable to keep pace with the port’s projected 300% growth and would be overwhelmed with port traffic in no time at all, particularly in light of the now confirmed freeport status.
Rather, the locations of these enterprise zones encourage us to think bigger.
Why shouldn’t we be seeking to keep container HGVs away from the port and the surrounding residential areas entirely?
The technologies presented in the Arup report could easily be tunnelled to the Wirral, or connect under and/or overground to Halton and St Helens. Or even out of the City Region completely to a terminal in Salford, with each destination having its own multi-modal solutions for containers to continue their onward journey.
Surely, this is a win-win?
Greater productivity and efficiency for the Port AND protection of the environment and an improvement in air quality for the surrounding communities.
You have to ask yourself: why wouldn’t Highways England and Peel Ports be interested in this?
As with every major infrastructure project, much of the decision-making process comes down to pounds and pence and the Arup proposals are no different.
Whilst it is seemingly easy to throw billions at PPE procurement (and then lose it?!), spending similar sums on sustainable infrastructure simply doesn’t happen.
Also, as much as we would like to believe that the environment and the public’s health and wellbeing are major considerations in determining the budget for a scheme such as ours; they are not. Highways England themselves confirmed this to us in our (hugely unproductive) 2018 meeting.
Instead, their out-of-date calculations came up with a paltry amount for this project (£250m) based on the back-of-a-fag-packet calculation they use to quantify vague economic benefits predicted to result from delivery of a road.
But hasn’t the situation now changed because of freeport status?
In short, aren’t we worth more now that the Port of Liverpool and its tax-haven depots are set to make “UK plc” more money?
We would suggest that the answer is ‘yes’.
This appears to have been backed up by statements made in the Chancellor’s budget announcement, in which he stated that freeports will have their own infrastructure funds in order to unlock their potential.
The technologies presented in the Arup report would all deliver a better benefits case than moving freight containers by HGV and offer a better return on investment than a damaging, dirty road, which would become an ongoing liability and a drain on public funds from the day it opened.
Surely this fact, coupled with the Conservatives’ “levelling up” agenda opens the door to significantly more funding for the vital cog in the wheel that is port access?
We certainly think so.
But what about the road plans?
In case you are wondering if all of this is just wishful thinking, we recently found encouragement from an unlikely source.
Despite doggedly sticking to its mantra that the road is necessary and its view that it would actually ‘improve the quality of the green space’, our correspondence with Highways England last month revealed a couple of important things:
1. The Port Access Steering Group has reconvened. This is a forum in which many of the key parties, including Sefton Council, Highways England, Merseytravel, Network Rail, Peel Ports and others discuss, well… port access. (You’ll note that there is an absence of community representation, which is something we have flagged and requested).
2. As a direct result of the freeport issue, it would appear that the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority is finallyengaging on the issue of port access, with a specific focus on the alternatives proposed in the Arup report.
Number 1 suggests that things may be moving in the right direction and that a prolonged period of ‘stand-off’ is over. The group had not met for a number of years, due to the Council’s policy of non-cooperation on Highways England’s road proposal.
Number 2 is a particularly interesting and encouraging development.
This is because, although the Combined Authority has clearly been involved in this project on some level up until this point, we would suggest that it has not been involved nearly enough and that the borough of Sefton has almost been hung out to dry.
Despite flagging the impact of the port’s operations on the area, ours has very much been a lone voice in the face of an over-simplistic message which can be summarised as “the Port is good for the economy: deal with it”.
A more hands-on approach from the Combined Authority is therefore welcomed.
Furthermore, given that the LCR backed the freeport bid, we believe that this brings with it a duty to take the lead on its delivery and to acknowledge our plight here in Sefton.
Clearly, somebody somewhere has crunched the numbers and realised that the Liverpool City Region stands to make a lot of money out of freeport status.
If that is the case, then the very least they can do is to ensure that Sefton residents aren’t left to suffer any unwelcome side-effects that could come from this.
Step up, Steve
It is for all these reasons and more that we believe that the Liverpool City Region and our Metro Mayor must truly get behind the infrastructure solutions contained within the Arup report and demand more money for their delivery from central government.
To date, our Metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram, has claimed that this has been exclusively a matter for Sefton Council.
Surely, his position has now changed.
He and his advisors must have been able to make the connection between their desire to secure freeport status and Sefton Council’s desire for better solutions to port connectivity?
Commenting on the freeport bid, the Metro Mayor claimed that this could not be at the expense of workers’ rights.
Whilst that is commendable, it begs the question: what about OUR rights to breathe clean air and to live in a pleasant environment?
This is not purely an economic initiative.
We need our Metro Mayor to demand a freeport environment that is sustainable, in every sense of the word.
For our situation, this means a solution to port access that is long-term, has capacity built in AND has the added bonus of protecting green space.
Far from being “just” about Rimrose Valley, this would drastically improve living conditions along the existing A5036 route and beyond, by removing container HGVs from it completely and going a long way to improving air quality in this part of the borough.
With the Metro Mayoral elections fast approaching, we sincerely hope the penny has dropped and that our Metro Mayor can show the necessary leadership, bringing the business community with him.
If this happens, we might just see him play a vital role in securing a better outcome for the citizens of Sefton and the wider Liverpool City Region.
After all, isn’t that kind of what the job entails?