As the UK Government trumpeted the plan to establish a number of Free Ports across the country as a leading edge component of their master plan to level up, I was enthused. Not just because I had started my business in the COVID era, which was pretty challenging in itself, but because it seemed like a very well founded plan. It lifted spirits in the face of BREXIT and offered a route to deal with the post-pandemic recovery. Who didn’t want to see improved opportunity in our more impoverished regions, a greater balance between the have’s and have not’s, and a breaking down of the North-South divide. Pulling together for a better future in order to build back better; yeah right!
The plan started to unravel almost immediately. The three devolved governments held back, each declaring problems that stopped them from moving in tandem with central government; predictably, the SNP were were the more vociferous of the three. Claiming that a single Free Port, in line with Wales and Northern Ireland, was insulting whilst England would establish eight. Further to this, Nicola Sturgeon and her government insisted that they would not move forward until such time as they had achieved Independence and rejoined the EU; yes, really. In fact, Sturgeon also insisted that Scotland would seek to implement “Green, as opposed to Free” Ports.
So, while the three devolved countries ground their teeth and sought greater input and clarity, the UK Government acting for England alone, moved the plan forward. Confirming the selection of the eight English Free Ports, together with the seed funding to be allocated post-submission of the Business Cases, it seemed as though things might actually start to happen. No such luck; with a huge range of political disasters lining up within National Government, the programme of work simply ground to a halt, or all but. There have been some areas of success, with Teeside Free Port seeming to make progress, at least on the infrastructure side, but no tangible national success. Despite several ridiculous and groundless claims by senior officials, including the PM himself, none of the Free Ports is actually operational, and all are late from a delivery perspective; more worryingly, the lead government department appears to have no control over the situation whatsoever.
Recent news almost beggars belief. After more than a year of argument between Boris’ government and Sturgeon’s SNP we are told that one of the major issues, whether to name them “Free or Green” Ports has been resolved; they are to be named “Green Free Ports”, and there will be two of them. You really couldn’t make this up. The Scots bidding process is to commence in the Spring of this year. I guess Ms Sturgeon has decided not to wait until Scotland rejoins the EU; what a deluded lady she is.
I guess the most disappointing thing about all of this sad, sorry tale is that I genuinely want to be involved in this critical piece of work. It is exactly the type of national undertaking that can help us and our country to build back better; but the country I am alluding to is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not individual nations stumbling forward under their own steam. We are stronger as a Union and in order to take our country forward, we must be united. By pushing on using the current flawed approach, I doubt we can ever regain our position of strength, influence, and success on the international stage, nor the standard of living and wealth our country has enjoyed for such a very long time. Perhaps I am a bit of a dinosaur, worried about the inevitable and out of touch with what my fellow citizens want. If so, I am glad I have lived my life to this point as a very proud Brit, and that the majority of the rest of it will be in retirement.
Never one to give up though, my parting shot is rule Britannia; God save the Queen.