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UK Government freeports plan ‘underwhelming’ for Scotland

Aberdeen Harbour is one of the potential locations eyeing up freeport plans.

Plans by the UK Government to establish “one or two” ports with special tax status in Scotland have been branded “underwhelming” by a ports boss.

Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, said there are around 30 “cargo gateways” across Scotland, with “many” able to make the case for so-called freeport status.

It follows months of strained talks between the UK and Scottish governments over how to set up ports with the ability to defer tax until products are moved on.

The ports boss appeared before MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s economy and fair work committee, where he was quizzed about their potential locations.

Freeport locations

Mr Ballantyne said while freeports are “quite a good and attractive offer”, he was “somewhat underwhelmed” by the number being proposed.

A total of eight freeport locations have been selected across England, with the UK Government committed to establishing “at least one” each in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Interest has been shown from Aberdeen, Peterhead, Cromarty Firth, Dundee and Grangemouth.

Aerial view of Peterhead port.

Mr Ballantyne told MSPs: “In England we’ve got eight – we were somewhat underwhelmed with the aspiration there should only be eight.

“We didn’t see the need to cap the number of ports and that has to be said as our position in Scotland.

“The Scottish Ports Group, which includes all the main Scottish port operators and many others, has around 30 or so cargo gateways in Scotland – some of them quite modest of course – but you could probably make the case for many of those locations that they should be a freeport.

“The proposal and suggestion that there might be one or two freeports stemming from the UK Government’s freeports policy is somewhat underwhelming.

“We have to be careful of picking winners in a sector that is traditionally market-led and made its own decisions and based on competition.

“We are now seeing government intervention coming in by capping the number.

“We are pushing for a more inclusive policy.”

The first minister is facing calls to review a decision to drop out of UK-wide talks on freeports.

The SNP-Green administration at Holyrood has said it wants to pursues its own “green ports” plan, after talks collapsed with UK counterparts.

SNP Trade Minister Ivan McKee had been moving to an agreement in the summer, but could not get UK Government Scottish Secretary Alister Jack to adopt red-line requests.

The party’s new Green coalition partners previously described the freeports policy as “state sponsored tax dodging with no place in a progressive Scotland”.

On the situation facing both governments, Mr Ballantyne said there is a “bit of divergence”.

He added: “We’re not sure whether that will go ahead in parallel, in partnership with the UK Government, or whether there will be separate mechanisms as has been mooted lately.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Freeports will be hubs for trade, innovation and commerce, regenerating communities by attracting new businesses, investment and opportunity as we level up across the United Kingdom.

“We want to establish Freeports in Scotland as soon as possible, ensuring communities across the UK can feel the benefits of this programme.”

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