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Opportunity Cromarty Firth reveal hopes for free port to boost jobs for 50 years

Port of Cromarty Firth
Port of Cromarty Firth

Ambitious plans to turn the Cromarty Firth into a free port that could secure work and jobs for the next 50 years have been revealed.

The Press and Journal can today reveal that Opportunity Cromarty Firth – made up of private and public sector bodies including the Port of Cromarty Firth (PCF), Global Energy Group (GEG) and Highland Council – has formed to drive forward the free port bid.

If successful, the Cromarty First would became an independent jurisdiction from customs purposes.

PCF chief executive Bob Buskie said free port status would make the area a “vital hub of industry, trade and employment in a post-Brexit Scotland and UK.”

Last year, the UK Government announced plans to create up to 10 free trade zones, also known as free ports, around the UK, where goods can be manufactured, imported and exported without incurring normal barriers to trade like tariffs and customs duties.

With at least one zone earmarked for Scotland, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the Press and Journal he was minded to grant Aberdeen or Peterhead such status – potentially creating thousands of jobs in the north-east.

The backers of the Opportunity Cromarty Firth bid, which also include development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), have not yet estimated how many new job opportunities it could create.

But they are confident it would “help secure much-needed post-Brexit supply chain opportunities and provide skilled employment in the Highlands for the next half a century.”

They added that the ambition behind the plan was to “stimulate economic activity and employment, attract inward investment in innovative renewable energy technologies of the future and equip local people and businesses with the necessary skills to bring transformational regeneration to the north of Scotland.”

Highland councillors were briefed on the vision last night and a virtual public launch event will take place later this month.

Mr Buskie said: “We believe Cromarty Firth is the ideal location to establish one of these free trade zones, and we hope those who come to the virtual public event will be as excited as we are at the opportunities a free trade zone could bring to our area.

“Cromarty Firth is steeped in industrial history, having supported North Sea oil and gas activity since the 1970s and is now playing a critical role in the Scottish offshore wind sector.  The firth hosts a number of leading supply chain companies as well as a locally skilled workforce with essential engineering experience. This is coupled with first-class port infrastructure and manufacturing facilities, which have benefited from over £110million of industry-led investments in the past 10 years.”

He added: “Thanks to our Highland location, Cromarty Firth is in a unique position as 15 of the 17 sites identified in the draft marine plan for offshore wind development are on our doorstep. Not only that, our ambitions and pipeline will support Scotland and the UK meet their climate obligations, helping to build offshore wind and hydrogen deployment at scale.

“Our facilities are some of the best in the UK, we have a proven track record of attracting new business to UK Plc, and we have a strong connection between local government, business and the port. Becoming a free trade zone will make Cromarty Firth and the Highlands a vital hub of industry, trade and employment in the renewables sector, driving forward a greener economy in a post-Brexit Scotland and UK.”

Deputy council leader Alasdair Christie, who also chairs the local authority’s recovery board, said the bid held “significant potential” for the region.

“It points to the unique position that Highland is in to accommodate such innovations, with services and businesses ready to help drive forward a green economy and to support future jobs,” he said. “The council is supporting and advising the steering group on relevant issues as they prepare the bid for free trade zone status.”

James Gibbs, HIE’s Inner Moray Firth area manager, added:  “This ambitious initiative could bring many potential benefits to manufacturing and the wider supply chain companies in the region, particularly those in the energy sector.

“There will be strong links to Scotland’s green recovery and the drive towards an economy based on net-zero emissions. We look forward to working with all partners involved with a view to securing those benefits for the wider region and for Scotland.”

Roy MacGregor, chairman of GEG, which owns Nigg Energy Park on the firth and is one of the area’s largest private sector employers, said the company was “delighted” to be working on the bid.

“It is our continuing desire to support the development of the Cromarty Firth and turn the Port of Nigg facility into an all-round energy hub,” he said. “The investment that has been made into Nigg since our purchase in 2011 has meant that we have been able to develop an extensive track record in the delivery of renewables project both in manufacturing and as a staging port for two major offshore wind projects.

“Our world-class facility, people and companies are ideally placed to support the future of the energy industry and would welcome the additional prospects that the free trade zone status will inevitably present.

“It is our hope that the Cromarty Firth, with its enviable location will put the Highlands on the map and ensure a sustainable future for the region and beyond.”

What is a free port?

Free ports, or fee trade zones, are designated by governments as areas with little to no tax in order to encourage economic activity.

In effect they exist outside a county’s borders for tax purposes.

Companies within them can defer payment of taxes until their products are moved elsewhere, or can avoid them altogether if they bring in goods to store or manufacture on site before exporting them again.

The UK Government announced proposals last year to create up to 10 free ports,  as part of its plans to boost economic activity around the country after the UK leaves the EU.

A consultation on the move, opened in February and delayed by the Covid-19 crisis, closed last month.

The introduction to the  document said: ‘’The government is working to boost economic activity across the UK, ensuring that towns, cities and regions across the country can begin to benefit from the opportunities of leaving the EU. As part of this work, the government aims to create up to 10 free ports in locations across the UK.

‘’The government wants to establish free ports, which have different customs rules than the rest of the country, that are innovative hubs, boost global trade, attract inward investment and increase productivity. In doing so, the government wants free ports to generate employment opportunities to the benefit of some of our most deprived communities around the UK.’’

It added: “We want all the nations of the UK to be able to share in the benefits of freeports. We intend to work with devolved administrations to develop proposals to allow freeports to be created in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in addition to those in England.”

Aberdeen and Peterhead

Last summer, Aberdeen or Peterhead appeared to be among the front-runners for post-Brexit free port status.

As he campaigned to take over the leadership of his party and become Prime Minister, senior sources on Boris Johnston’s team revealed to the Press & Journal he was apparently privately considering the move.

At the time it was said that discussions were “progressing” on the matter.

It was hailed as a development that could “turbocharge’” the economy of the north-east along with those of other areas selected to be free trade zones once the UK leaves the EU.

The suggestion was welcomed by Aberdeen City Council and local politicians, but as yet, no formal announcement has been made on whether there will be a north-east bid for free port status.

In October, Aberdeen harbour bosses said ‘’further investigation’’ would be needed into the operating models ministers are planning to introduce.

The city’s harbour is currently in the midst of a huge expansion project, which will allow massive cruise liners to call.

Scotland is in line to have at least one of the planned free ports.  Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to use his Autumn Statement to invite applications from candidate areas.

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