Tom White, innovation architect at Connected Places Catapult, provides his insights on the potential of Freeports. White notes that regions must develop their own regional and global USPs to drive investment, but a challenge is coordinating what each region is going for.
"General feedback from our network is that Freeports could potentially be a good thing for the UK but it is about how they are executed and set up in their mission that will determine that potential.
"When we began talking about Freeports and looking at European experiences, it’s important to focus fundamentally on how we can use these special economic zones and the financial and economic incentives they have attached to them, to drive people to come to our country as innovators by establishing strong regional USPs.
"The investors’ thinking should be ‘why should I go to Liverpool rather than Singapore’. As an investor or technology, by looking at individual USPs the potential becomes clear for each region. It is not about getting more cargo over the borders; it is about attracting people and innovation to these regions. Some competitiveness comes from the investment aspect and how it makes a regional impact. We have worked with successful and unsuccessful ports and seen how port competitiveness manifests. The bidding process did force ports and regions to work together in ways they had not before. Initiatives started with the bidding process so that is already a positive impact.
"The Freeports need to have a holistic investment focus because it is attracting new business rather than moving between regions, so this does not necessarily create a negatively competitive environment. The biggest challenge to driving inward investment, innovation and regional regeneration to level up is that regions must develop a USP on a global and national scale. We cannot have eight hydrogen hubs across the UK all targeting the same pot of investment. Regions need to honestly look at what exists in their ecosystem, what can be built on what are the weaknesses, to prevent all Freeports chasing after the same things. The challenge is coordinating what each region is going after, so each one is not competing with another, and is focussed on competing on a global scale. The Government has an influencing role to play in coordinating this, but it should largely be an industry driven initiative."