Blue-shaded area = Plymouth and South Devon Freeport area Image @stanfontan
Friday 17 November saw the West Country Voices live debate on Plymouth & South Devon Freeport. Held within the spectacular St Mary's Church in Totnes, the event was attended by around 80 people in person and an even larger number online. The livestream was not without some problems, but it was an ambitious project, blending remote contributions from the panel (chaired by George Monbiot), freeport researcher, David Powell (based in The Hague) and questions from the audience.
It was an event put on in the public interest, at expense and effort from an independent citizen news provider and, as such, should be applauded. In that one event I felt there was more information and exploration of the Freeport issue than we have had from any public bodies or other regional media. I was a member of the panel for the evening.
I have been investigating the Freeport - as both a resident of South Hams and as a writer (for West Country Voices and the Totnes Pulse amongst other journals). I had been trying to get some straight answers from South Hams on their decision making and involvement for many weeks in the run up to the discussion. As well as answering questions from the audience, I made a statement outlining the research I had conducted and the unanswered questions that remained.
I have always made sure that I research something myself: no matter what others may say or claim on any one issue. I do not claim to 'have knowledge' of a subject unless I have pursued it myself. I do not put my name to other people's ideas or concerns unless I have explored them thoroughly from a sceptical, ground zero, party neutral, evidence based standpoint.
Until I received a copy of the SHDC Corporate Consultation in mid October, my knowledge was scant and I had little to go on, beyond being alerted to 'issues' with Freeports through a public event. I needed to find out for myself. As a result, my findings here are from my own experiences and questioning.
Here is the statement I made at the event on 17 November:
"Just a few weeks ago I read this year's South Hams Council Corporate Strategies. These key documents had surprisingly little to say on what the Council regards as, "one of the largest economic development projects undertaken in South Hams".
But there was a lonely glossy sentence that caught my eye: "Number 7 Primary Aim: to continue to maximise the benefits of the Freeport and the business it brings to our area." We've all been burned by the elusive 'Brexit benefits' so I was puzzled about what these Freeport benefits could be- especially as the Freeport is in its very earliest stages.
I dug deeper - combing through council minutes, agendas, addendums, and I emailed questions to many elements of the Council. I summarise my personal findings here:
- Transparency (lack of)
- Inconsistency (lots of)
- Benefits (still looking)
So let me start first with transparency: What do we residents know?
Personally, four weeks ago I knew very little. I was aware of the odd article on the formation of the Freeport over the past few years, portrayed in mostly glowing terms. Further reading revealed that cash-strapped, service-cutting Devon County Council had put a borrowed GBP15 million into the Freeport.
Cash- strapped, service-cutting South Hams has put in over GBP5 million. Perhaps - as for many of us- that was the full extent of my Freeport knowledge. But few of us - apart from South Hams Councillors - will have seen the picture that emerges from the minutes, council documents and agendas of the past two years:
The huge government pressure applied behind the scenes for Councils to take on the government's ideologically-driven, evidence-thin, Freeport agenda. The ongoing challenges of vanishing government council funding. Veiled subtexts contained deep in council minutes such as this one which says:
"[If the Council were to have no involvement in the Freeport it] would have ramifications with government and partners on other agendas, such as the County Deal." My investigations into the Freeport and South Hams show that someone, somewhere, wanted it to happen very badly. And the government leant on councils to make it happen.
So I started to put what I assumed would be a series of simple questions to the South Hams Council Executive. I have been told to wait until 30 November for a comment from the Council Leader, to be delivered during the time-pressured Council Executive meeting. But with the greatest of respect, I believe residents deserve more than a 'comment'.
In response to my questions, the Council couldn't even give me a simple date for when the South Hams public consultations on the Freeport had happened. I simply received no answer on that (despite asking multiple people, multiple times). My questions uncovered the fact that South Hams and Devon County Council had already signed a legally binding agreement to form the Freeport.
So I asked the Council to clarify the liabilities, costs and damages that could be incurred if they were to withdraw from this already signed agreement. There was no answer on this. My questions did however prompt a response from the Council that there had in fact been concerns and questions raised by Council members about this Freeport partnership.
So I asked the council to clarify what these questions and concerns were, and when they were raised. No answer. My questioning revealed that the Council had now set up a 'Task and Finish group' to report on the risks and benefits of the Freeport.
Puzzled about how it could happen that the Council would retrospectively need to investigate the risks and benefits after already committing to a legally binding agreement, I asked them whether the findings could have any possible impact on withdrawal, partial withdrawal or modification of the agreement already in place. I have had no answer. I asked the Communications team, I asked the Executive and key councillors, I asked the multi-hyphenated 'Directors' at South Hams, I cc'd the CEO.
I was then directed firmly to submit an Environmental Information Request (known as EIR) under Freedom Of Information (known as FOI). The problem is that EIR and FOI should be the last resort- not the first. Councils can easily redact information, or claim 'commercial sensitivity' prevents them from providing it.
South Hams also has a Scheme of Publication which would enable it to freely provide information of all depths, including consultations - if it so wished. One of the most common concerns raised about Freeports is one regarding transparency and scrutiny. The publicly-sanitised published Business Case for the Freeport of course has all 'commercially sensitive' information removed- making it virtually useless.
These issues go right to the heart of the problem with public/private partnerships. In practice, the corporate confidentiality of private companies trumps our public access to information. We have no sight of the Freeport's regulatory and legal protections for environment, planning and rights.
We all know that already the government is dropping regulation at the rate of knots in all aspects of our lives - even human rights law is now a target. All we have regarding the Freeport is the word 'assurance' from the Council. I think we would be wise to demand actual evidence.
Throughout my dealings with South Hams, I have been led to believe that the 'Freeport deal is done.' (Remember this idea of a 'done deal' - it's important for later.) Totnes Town Councillors got the same treatment just a few weeks ago with their first meaningful engagement on the Freeport from South Hams: a slide presentation on the Freeport, followed by questions on what was made clear to be a 'done deal'. So if it is 'done', just how good is this Freeport 'deal' we are signed up to?
Fuzzy language surrounds the South Hams description of the Freeport partnership: the Freeport documentation is peppered with a word salad of Net Zero 'ambition'. South Hams states it is thrilled to have 'an 'opportunity' ... to shape the goals and the work of the Freeport to the priorities of the Council" in which the Council is ""encouraging" the Freeport company to provide comprehensive reports on its activities to the local communities" It's becoming clear to me, at least, who wears the trousers in this legal partnership - and who may have failed to ensure they were wearing any trousers in the first place.
It's also clear that there is no legal obligation for the Freeport to provide comprehensive reports to us. Another question: How was the boundary of the Freeport - that reaches right across Dartmoor - decided?
The Freeport Bidding Prospectus states in relation to the 45km boundary limit: "This means that, unless a very strong case is made [with] clear economic rationale for why the Freeport Outer Boundary is defined as it is [it] will fail the bidding process. Bids judged to be designed simply to maximise the area contained within the Outer Boundary without clear economic rationale [will fail]"
So what was the very strong case that was made forcefully enough to succeed in the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport bid? Will South Hams or Devon County Council let us see this strong economic rationale to include the whole of Dartmoor within the Freeport boundary? There are three sites involved with the Freeport:
The South Yard site - located near the Port The Langage site - in close proximity to the A38 Expressway The Sherford site - located on the opposite side of the Expressway to Langage
There should be no doubt how important Langage is to the whole enterprise. In fact, the Freeport proposal trumpets Langage as its green hydrogen centrepiece. But it seems there are already problems with this site and information on what exactly is happening is scant.
Digging back into Council documents, I found a council report from September 2022 on the Approval of making a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) for Langage land. It states, "The CPO Land at Langage is integral to the success of the Freeport.
As set out in the Freeport  Full Business Case, the Langage site including the CPO Land cannot be replicated anywhere else. A detailed triangulation of the Freeport... was undertaken at the very start of the Freeport Bid. This showed that the inclusion of South Yard, Sherford and Langage were a) all required to hit minimum area thresholds and b) were the only allocated sites that were policy compliant and deliverable within the timeframes required."
So I think we should be told: what is the timeframe for Langage? Is it falling behind? Is the Compulsory Purchase Order going ahead?
Are there issues with this land? It looks like Langage is holding things up. Because in September '22 there was clearly an issue, and one that demanded the major step of a Compulsory Purchase Order.
So it's clear that Langage is critical to the Freeport, and that without absolute clarity to the contrary from the Council, we should assume that Langage remains a risk. And this also then calls into question the Council's assertion that the Freeport 'is a done deal'. Because on the basis of this Council document, without Langage- there is no Freeport.
The deal is not done until Langage is done. That means we could have problems on multiple fronts with what the Council is or is not letting us know:
- Langage could present an existential risk to the Freeport
- The Freeport deal may not be 'done' and, therefore, that impression or statement should not be made, as it would be incorrect
- What further commitments - financial, planning, capacity and resource - are cash-strapped South Hams and cash-strapped Devon County Council going to have to commit to make Langage actually happen , as it must, to have the Freeport?
And there are further questions, too: Will the Langage site ever deliver the green hydrogen plant that forms the Freeport centrepiece?
There's precious little hard information on this, either. And how are vehicles going to be accessing sites such as Langage? Will it be necessary to build additional roads and structures?
There are cost, planning and environmental considerations- a road has to cross multiple pieces of land. How much delay should we expect? How much is all this delay going to cost- and who will end up paying?
Because time is another issue with the Freeport. The Financial Times reported the news (ahead of the Autumn Statement) that Jeremy Hunt was looking to extend some of the tax breaks for Freeports from 2026 to 2031. [Which he has done. Ed] According to the FT,
"experts, executives and regional leaders were concerned...that the [Freeport] policy as drawn up represented a "cliff edge". Companies that sign up to build premises in a freeport may still take several years to gain planning permission, construct their factories or warehouse and for them to become operational."
It's as if they were talking about Langage itself. Uncertainty is a terrible thing for a highly ambitious economic development project.
It cannot live or die dependent on a government ideology. At the moment the whole Freeport edifice is built on the thin air of tax breaks and favourable business conditions. If governments turn left - what next for the legacy agendas of the hard right?
And meanwhile I am still waiting for an answer from the Council on these elusive Freeport benefits I've enjoyed this year. And now you need to realise something clearly. In the eyes of the Freeport, we are not stakeholders.
Yes, the Freeport involves South Hams land and infrastructure. Yes, it uses (so far) over GBP5 million underwritten by you and me from South Hams and GBP15 million from Devon council. Yes, it involves legal obligations and costs and damages that can be levied against our cash-strapped council.
But us? No. Residents are not technically stakeholders.
Plymouth City Council, Devon County Council and South Hams District Council are. The Universities of Plymouth and Exeter are. Princess Yachts, Carlton Power and Babcock International are.
The Port Operators, the Ministry of Defence are. But you and me? We are not.
The stakeholders have been on the inside of information and documentation on the Freeport all along, for years. And meanwhile, underwriters to this scheme - South Hams Council and Devon County Council - face unprecedented reductions in government funding. On its own website, South Hams states,
"The Council has taken a hard look at where it can save money to keep balancing the books." One might remark that this 'hard look' has been cast more on its residents than the private pockets of the Freeport partnership. Meanwhile, South Hams Members and officers have multi-hyphenated job roles and titles that are so long they require semicolons.
This appropriation of resource and capacity to serve the Freeport makes me wonder if resource and capacity is not serving other council functions or the needs of its residents. In Summary I'm not into conspiracy- just transparency, value for public money, and the desire for clarity on what we should expect from our elected Council leaders.
The levels of dismay amongst residents and Councillors is concerning, and indicates a substantial mishandling of engagement. It's indicative of a lack of meaningful consultation and the transparency that that would have brought. I want to end by quoting from Princess Yachts' website.
For those who don't realise, Princess Yachts are a key, private company in this Freeport 'partnership' whose access to the Freeport's favourable business conditions - who knows- may have contributed to it being snapped up by a US based private equity firm earlier this year. If you go onto their website you are greeted by these words; "Your yacht is an extension of yourself.
A statement of your lifestyle. She needs to deliver unforgettable experiences for you, your family and friends." That's what Princess Yachts are about.
But for the residents of our cash-strapped Councils, their core business and concern is not yachts. The 'extension of ourselves' ,as residents, are our sick relatives, children in care, families living in poverty and substandard housing, a mental health crisis amongst the young, a collapse of social care for people with disabilities, the crumbling of educational infrastructure, the degradation of the environment and vanishing public spaces, the elderly relatives unable to get warm, eat hot food, or even have company. The only 'unforgettable experience' our Council should be concerned about is providing dignity, wellbeing and quality of life to its residents.
And it is the great tragedy of this Freeports 'partnership', that even at this incredibly early stage, our Councils seem compromised in their core purpose, their openness, and their democratic duties. And our Council - South Hams, who were invited to participate here this evening- isn't even here to help us understand quite what it is they signed us up for. "
My 'presentation' as a panellist ends here. Please note that at the end when I stated that South Hams Council had not turned up to speak on the panel - I meant key members with specific responsibility for the Freeport or who could speak on behalf of the Council itself.
Cllr Jacqi Hodgson was on the panel with me and clarified a number of issues from her perspective as a Green Party Councillor who was herself seeking many answers. Cllr Hodgson states she has been highlighting concerns to the parish councils she reports to since last year, as well as issuing other reports to local newsletters. The Green Party included a call for a review of the Freeport in their South Devon Election manifesto for this May.
And on 30th November, as a Member of the Executive, she will be seeking a response to public concerns and continuing to challenge these Freeport proposals, asking 'How much will it cost to leave the deal'? Politics Throughout my statement above I attempted to keep specific party politics apart from the Freeport issue as much as possible in order to preserve focus for the evening on the details.
I have been collating on-the-record statements from all the main political parties for a series of articles I intend to write in which the political dimensions to the Freeport will need to be explored. I am ensuring all main political parties have time to respond so I can write with balance on party political standpoints on what could turn into a political issue of some gravity in the timeframe of an imminent general election. Caroline Voaden has already responded as Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, the Green Party have confirmed an imminent response.
I have emailed multiple contacts at Labour and await a response. I have emailed Anthony Mangnall MP for South Devon (Cons) and have as yet had no response. Questions From the Audience
After each member of the panel had conducted their positioning statement, George Monbiot chaired audience questions, all of which were invaluable and showed the need for urgent engagement from not only the Council and Freeport, but political parties, too. There was an interesting question raised regarding Labour's position on Freeports that I was unable to answer for reasons I clarify above. There was another thought-provoking question on whether councils were becoming effectively little more than 'contract managers' for 'the privatised state'.
The audience member asked, "Is there any point asking anything except what the national opposition parties are prepared to do to stop this march of capitalism?" Key Liberal Democrat Councillors in the Audience I had noted from the start of the meeting that the Leader of South Hams Council (and Chair of the Executive), Cllr Julian Brazil, was present and sat at the back of the audience throughout the meeting.
I chose not to highlight this fact as I felt it was his decision whether to engage or not, and I was at least glad that he was there, at least. Cllr Julian Brazil had been invited by West Country Voices to join the panel as someone who could speak on behalf of the Council, and with some knowledge of the Freeport. And then, right at the end of the event, a Liberal Democrat Councillor stood up to lay out a few points.
This Councillor had Chaired the Task and Finish scrutiny group I had mentioned in my statement above. The Task and Finish group's role was to independently scrutinise the risks and benefits of the Freeport on behalf of the Council. First, I was pleased that another Councillor had chosen to speak.
He acknowledged that, prior to May this year, the engagement and transparency with the public had been poor. And then he expressed his 'disappointment' that West Country Voices had not read out 'a statement' sent by email at 16:00 that same afternoon. That comment aroused deep misgivings for me.
What statement- and from whom? Was it a Council statement? A statement from the Freeport?
Or an additional statement from the Liberal Democrats (whose 'record' as the new administration we had just been discussing)? Comment by Proxy I was annoyed by the assumption that somehow West Country Voices were remiss in not reading an email that had been sent- without warning- late that afternoon.
This was against the backdrop that West Country Voices had been chasing both Freeport and Council for a panel member to be present to put the Freeport case. In addition, I felt it stank of being 'comment by proxy'. An emailed statement is by its nature a pre-selection of what questions to answer, and how to answer them.
A statement by email sidesteps genuine accountability. It was only after the event that I got to read the statement. And it transpires it was in fact a statement titled: "PASD (Plymouth And South Devon) Freeport Company response."
My study of this statement, and reflection on the Liberal Democrat Councillor's reference to it, reveals to me the need for a whole new range of questions to be asked. You might think these questions are casting aspersions. If so, please respond so your voice can be heard!
They seem to me to be quite reasonable:
You see, I believe that this gets to the nub of something really fascinating.
The Task and Finish group, as far as I am aware, should be an independent group that scrutinises the risks and benefits from an independent standpoint. Why would the Chair of this group even know about an official statement coming directly from the Freeport, let alone be 'disappointed' that it had not been read out? These are all interesting questions on the sequence of events.
Despite the Freeport statement - the big questions remain In my view for the most part the Freeport statement simply revisits information already available from the Freeport website and the redacted Business Case that has all 'commercially sensitive' information removed. But on the issue of Plymouth Freeport's 75km boundary (that sucks in Dartmoor), the argument presented in the statement still doesn't seem to stack up:
"Government required Freeports to be developed at pace and encouraged bidders to consider the use of Local Development Orders (LDOs). The three Local Authority members (Plymouth City Council, South Hams District Council and Devon County Council) did not wish to pursue this option for the PASD Freeport because the Joint Local Plan https://www.southhams.gov.uk/your-council/councilplans-policies-and-reports/policies/planning-policies/plymouth-and-south-west is already in place which had previously been consulted on extensively and had been signed off through the democratic processes of each Local Authority (LA). The Freeport's outer boundary is aligned to the Plymouth and South West Devon Joint Local Plan.
The PASD Freeport outer boundary was therefore drawn to reflect the geographic boundary of the Joint Local Plan, giving it a coherent economic rationale." The 'clear economic rationale' required by the Freeport Bidding Prospectus seems to have been re-translated in the Freeport statement as a 'coherent economic rationale'. As I pointed out during the panel discussion, the Freeport Bidding Prospectus states in relation to the 45km maximum boundary limit:
"This means that, unless a very strong case is made [with] clear economic rationale for why the Freeport Outer Boundary is defined as it is [it] will fail the bidding process. Bids judged to be designed simply to maximise the area contained within the Outer Boundary without clear economic rationale [will fail]" I really struggle with the statement's reliance on the four-year-old Joint Local Plan (JLP) as a rationale for the boundary based on the context of the JLP itself.
On page 5 of its 368 pages, the Joint local Plan states its purpose: "1.2 The key purpose of the JLP is to establish an over-arching strategic framework for sustainable growth and the management of change." So - it's stated purpose had nothing to do with tax sites, Freeports, special economic zones or freezones.
Interestingly, I note the next item stating: "1.3 The JLP excludes policies for Dartmoor National Park Authority. This is because the National Park Authority is preparing a separate local plan.
However both plans will be based on joint evidence." What does this mean for the reliance on the JLP being used to integrate Dartmoor within the Freeport zone, if in fact the National Park Authority has a separate local plan? The statement's argument for the boundary is neither strong nor compelling:
It's not an economic argument, it's a geographical argument. As a result, it doesn't seem to meet the conditions set out in the Bidding Prospectus. A 'coherent economic rationale' (what does that even mean?) is not the 'very strong case' required by the Bidding prospectus.
If it means that it's simply 'neat' because it's geographical, then that does not meet the Bidding Prospectus requirements, either. Remember: the Bidding Prospectus states, "Bids judged to be designed simply to maximise the area contained within the Outer Boundary without clear economic rationale [will fail]."
If the PASD Freeport or South Hams District Council is serious about transparency, I think we should expect them to release the relevant section of the Bidding Prospectus that was submitted; but I would be surprised if it was ever provided (unredacted), even under EIR or FOI, because of 'commercial sensitivities.' I would love to be proved wrong.
- The Freeport statement's argument is based on the concept that the Joint Local Plan is a contextually similar proxy for further decision-making regarding the Freeport. The Joint Local Plan was consulted on in 2019 and it feels like a very stretched argument to claim that the Joint Local Plan (that was geographically based as it was a consultation on the whole area) should by extension form the rationale for a completely different entity - the Freeport - and its artificial boundary.
- The Joint Local Plan was a consultation with an entirely different remit from the Freeport.
In fact, please find any mention of 'Freeport', Freezone' or 'tax site' within the Joint Local Plan. I've looked, and I for one cannot find any.
- There was clearly a deliberate choice made not to use Local Development Orders - and we should ask why this was, especially since the Joint Local Plan seems to bear little relevance to the new economic remit of a Freeport. Why was that deliberate choice made, and by whom?
There is much more to unpick from this Freeport statement- as there are still so many unanswered questions.
In particular I am interested in the fact that the Freeport statement reads, "Government required Freeports to be developed at pace". We need to find out why, on what decisions, by whom, and with what impact? Were Councillors given enough time to make big decisions?
Was the information they based these on clear? Judging by the fact we now have had a retrospective Task and Finish group looking into the Freeport deal, my feeling is - no. If anyone has any thoughts or intelligence that they wish to share - as a Councillor, resident or other party - do contact West Country Voices : [email protected].
Any information you may share will be looked into, in confidence. And, like many, I will be watching and listening to the South Hams Council Executive on 30 November and carefully combing through the documents provided to unpick further what this Freeport really means for all of us living in this area and beyond. And I will be looking closely for where this might lead politically - for all parties.
Because one thing is for sure: the Freeport is already proving a hotbed of controversy. We are all old enough and ugly enough to know that something that starts out mired in mud, only brings in more mud.
Call to action:
Democracy relies on the public (us) demanding transparency and accountability from our elected representatives. Use this tool to find out who your elected local, South Hams, Devon County or Plymouth Councillor is.
Email them and ask your questions based on what you have read. Do they really understand the issues involved? Are they prepared to fully back the Plymouth & South Devon Freeport?
- ^ @stanfontan (twitter.com)
- ^ PASD (Plymouth And South Devon) Freeport Company response (westcountryvoices.co.uk)
- ^ https://www.southhams.gov.uk/your-council/councilplans-policies-and-reports/policies/planning-policies/plymouth-and-south-west (www.southhams.gov.uk)
- ^ four-year-old Joint Local Plan (JLP (www.plymouth.gov.uk)
- ^ [email protected] (www.westcountryvoices.co.uk)
- ^ this tool (www.writetothem.com)