Against Freeports

Freeports are not the solution to Scotland’s industrial decline. Maggie Chapman considers the challenges they present for the left.

Scotland’s industrial decline over the last 60 years is well documented in academia, the media and our culture. As a founding nation of the industrial revolution the transformation in our manufacturing and industrial economies paints a stark picture: job losses, weakening trade unions, privatisation of the means of production and common good assets and benefits, and an increasingly precarious future.

Sixty years ago, there were around 750,000 jobs in manufacturing. Recent figures show this has dropped to only 178,000. Our energy industry has seen rapid transformation, from the closure of coal mines to the job losses in oil and gas. We have witnessed increasingly uneven development in terms of geography, where and for whom wealth has accumulated, and who shoulders the burden of not only the industrial decline, but the impacts of the fossil economy that Scotland helped found.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that freeports have been presented as some kind of panacea: to address the problem of economic regeneration outside the south east of England, to catalyse economic growth, and to pump up a once great industrial and manufacturing country. And this is why the UK and Scottish Governments are developing two freeports in Scotland: the Forth Green Freeport, and the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport.

The Freeport plans will transform the Cromarty Firth. Source:

These freeports, according the UK Government, will have different customs, tax and regulation regimes to the rest of the country, and will be “innovative hubs” that “boost global trade, attract inward investment and increase productivity”. The Scottish Government has indicated that they should also focus on “sustainable, inclusive growth, fair work and a just transition to net zero”, hence the inclusion of the word “green” in their names.

What are the two Scottish freeports supposed to deliver?

In the Central Belt, the Forth Green Freeport, led by Forth Ports with partners including Babcock, Edinburgh Airport, Ineos and public sector agencies, aims to support the just transition, attract inward investment, build export capacity and create high quality jobs. Some of the promises sound very good indeed: £6 billion in private and public investment and a contribution of £4 billion in gross value add; 50,000 high quality jobs; supporting the transition to net-zero by being a “catalyst for new green technologies, alternative fuels and renewable energy manufacturing; skills development programmes for young people; new freight, rail and alternative fuel terminals; SME/start up incubators; innovation hub bringing together academia and business.

The Inverness and Cromarty Firth Greenport (Opportunity Cromarty Firth) extends from Inverness through the Black Isle into Easter Ross and beyond. It is a partnership including the Port of Cromarty Firth and Global Energy Group. Its focus is on the opportunities from offshore renewables and green hydrogen, with an aim to maximise the business opportunities and employment for the region. This bid prior to approval promised up to 25,000 green jobs, the addition of £6 billion to the regional economy, £2.6 billion inward investment, with the creation of a new innovation cluster to drive the green energy economy.

On the face of it, this all sounds great: jobs, investment, manufacturing and innovation hubs, all contributing to our ambitions around a just transition to a fossil-free energy economy, and sustainable regional economies. 

However, there are several sets of reasons why I do not believe that these “green” freeports are the solution to our industrial decline.

The chlorinated chicken of industrial policy

First, freeports have a terrible record of delivering on their promises of jobs and economic transformation. They might see job numbers rise within their boundaries, but this is usually because they have sucked jobs and businesses out of other areas that do not have freeport status and the associated tax exemptions. And it will not just be jobs that are displaced from elsewhere. If businesses are motivated primarily by the desire for profit, it is only logical to invest where costs are lower. So, freeports result in a decline in investment elsewhere – in communities, in industries and technologies not covered by the low operating costs of freeports. Stifling investment in this way will only exacerbate uneven development. In addition to this, modern manufacturing, especially in the focus industries of energy and technology, tends to rely not on low tariffs and tax breaks, but instead on high quality skills and investment. In 2020, a University of Sussex study of all possible manufacturing found that the only industry that would benefit from freeports was dog food! It is clear to me that freeports – “green” or otherwise – are not the solution to our industrial decline.

The second reason why freeports are a problem is that when they fail to deliver development and economic growth through tariff avoidance, they start to rely on the reduction of workers’ rights, of environmental protections and of the rule of law. At best they encourage the sort of sweatshops like those that did so much to spread COVID-19 in London and Leicester, where women were stitching clothes at well below minimum wage. The Scottish Government’s desire that our greenwashed freeports should “aim for the very highest standards in fair work practices” is just not good enough. We should be demanding and requiring companies to meet these high standards – our workers and trade unions deserve nothing less.

Another reason against freeports in Scotland emerges from the first two. According to former HMRC director general (and SNP councillor) Peter Henderson, who has firsthand professional experience of dealing with freeports, Scotland lacks the legal powers over freeports to enforce the conditions and safeguards it wants. If the Scottish Government does not have the right controls, it cannot protect health and safety or environmental standards. It might well have to pick up the pieces in the event of an accident on site, or when goods go missing across the large areas covered by the freeport zones. Scotland does not have the powers to protect trademark or copyright laws, or ensure the safety of products. Or enforce formal trade union recognition. So freeports essentially transfer an enormous burden of risk to the taxpayer and to workers, and this is magnified in Scotland because of our devolution settlement. Experience elsewhere tells us that freeports can become lawless wild west areas where drugs and other illegal goods are warehoused, notorious for money laundering, smuggling, people trafficking and the dumping of surplus goods. Scotland would be powerless to prevent any of this.

The final set of reasons why freeports do not provide the solution to uneven development, industrial decline or failing regional economies has to do with the wider context within which these zones sit. And this external issue is seldom, if ever, discussed when considering such developments. Even if the problems with freeports outlined above do not materialise (and that is a very big “if”) and they do deliver on the job creation promises, our wider social and economic fabric has been so badly degraded and eroded over the last half century so as to be incapable of supporting the population growth. Where are the homes to accommodate the 25,000 additional workers – and their families – in the north of Scotland? Where are the schools required for the children of these workers? How will the various strands of our health and social care system – from GPs and dentists to hospitals and carehomes – cope with increased demand? Where are the public transport links to support this demographic shift? We already know that, especially in rural areas, we face a housing crisis. There are already many unfilled posts in the NHS beyond the central belt. Our public infrastructure just does not exist at the scale required, and our planning system has a very poor record of extracting public or community benefit from private investment and development.

All of these reasons, I think, provide clear justification to not support the greenwashed, state-sponsored tax avoidance schemes that freeports are. They are a failed idea from the last century – the chlorinated chicken of industrial policy. They will result in the loss of public resources and wealth to the private sector. They are no match for a proper industrial strategy, that places community and worker voices at the heart of economic regeneration.

What is to be done?

Over the last 60 years of de-industrialisation and the loss of manufacturing jobs, the expansion of neoliberalism has not actually led to a better world: we face the biggest challenge we’ve ever encountered in the climate crisis, and for the first time in centuries, younger generations will be worse off than their parents. Freeports represent a continuation of this failing and broken system.

So freeports present a significant challenge to the Left in Scotland. But wherever there is challenge there is also opportunity. We have a proud history of trade union solidarity in Scotland. We have phenomenal resources with which to build our future, from the industrial history and skills associated with deep-water engineering and fabrication to our universities and colleges; from the vast potential in our natural resources to the equally expansive potential in our creative and skilled population. Scotland can still lead the kind of economic transformation outlined by the Green New Deal and other similar proposals for a liveable future.

But we need to shore up our communities and workers. We need to resist the culture wars and other attempts from the right to divide us and destroy our solidarity. We need to use the power we have as workers, trade unionists, activists, to democratise our economy. We need to seek common cause across cultural and sectoral divides. Only then will we be able to resist the worst impacts of freeports on our rights, our communities and our economy.

Maggie Chapman is a Green MSP for the North East Scotland region.