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The alternative to Freeports

Robin McAlpine

Already this year Scotland has got one new big development which is opposed by almost everyone except Scotland’s monied elites and people who like hard-right economics – Freeports are with us. This is a dreadful wrong turn for Scotland, yet another sign there is something wrong with Scotland’s democracy and yet another example of doing the wrong thing when there is a right thing.

Freeports are appalling. I explained this last year in a newsletter article. They are inextricably linked to slavery, appalling working conditions, elite profiteering, undermining domestic economies, organised crime and secrecy. And now we’re getting two.

Sadly what we are not getting is what we really ought to be getting, which is a proper industrial strategy and a proper economic development plan for Scotland’s coastal and island economies. Far from helping the development of those economies, Freeports are likely to damage them.

There are some straightforward realities you should get your head round first. I bet you have a picture in your mind of what a Freeport might look like. I bet there is sea in the background, a harbour, and an industrial estate around it, or something like that. You’d be wrong.

I woke up this morning to the frosty, snow-covered vista of South Lanarkshire’s rolling hills without a seagull in sight. But I’m in a Freeport (the Forth Freeport, and that’s not Forth the Lanarkshire town but Forth as in Firth of Forth, as in Forth Road Bridge). In fact I can make the following journey without leaving the Freeport:

I can make the lengthy trip to North Berwick for morning coffee, pop into Haddinton for a newspaper, head off via Edinburgh, Forth Crossing and another lengthy trip to Cupar in Fife for lunch, continue on to Scone for a visit to the Palace, head down through Auchteradrer and Gleneagles for an afternoon tea in Dunblane, catch some creatures at the Blair Drummond Safari Park, head down through Stirling, Bannockburn, Cumbernauld and Coatbridge, get some messages in Carluke, divert over to Borders town Peebles for tea and then head home.

That’s all without leaving the Forth Freeport.

These are not manufacturing hubs linked to a coastal development that enables exporting, these are giant, deregulated regions of Scotland. How deregulated? Well you’re going to find out, aren’t you? But it’s all for export isn’t it? Well is it? Neither Forth Ports nor anything up around Cromarty (the other ‘winner’) are substantial export hubs. They just happen to be beside the sea.

If you’re expecting rigorous Scottish Government efforts to ensure this isn’t a free-for-all for the worst businesses and that it doesn’t undermine other parts of the economy, my guess is you’ll be disappointed. Local economic development experts around Scotland are breathing a sigh of relief if they are not in a Freeport zone.

This is a far-right economic policy, well to the right of anything the Thatcher government did, in the territory of the kind of thing only a right-wing libertarian like Ron De Santis supports. Of course the business elite will grasp at anything that deregulates and reduces the level of their expected contribution to a good society.

But that isn’t how our democracy is supposed to work. People are supposed to vote for this kind of politics and in Scotland they didn’t. Political parties are supposed to be driven by their members and the SNP voted overwhelmingly against Freeports. Its leadership just shrugs.

The Scottish Government has been fast to shout about ‘contempt for democracy’ of late, but if you really want to look at when the spirit of democracy is being treated with contempt it is when the elite make policy without the consent of anyone and directly against the wishes of people who have a vote.

That is what has happened here and it is becoming horribly familiar in Scotland. Certainly in the last decade Scottish economic policy has become the plaything of the very powerful and the Scottish Government has facilitated it every step of the way (with the truly shameful support of the Scottish Greens).

So yes, this is a terrible policy that has no place in a modern, developed economy like Scotland – and particularly not in one where the public consistently votes to the left of centre. In any other period of recent Scottish history that I can think of there would be mass protests at this outcome.

But if this was not bad enough, it is all wasting the enormous potential of Scotland’s coastline. We have neglected this resource in a pretty shameful way and it is a long time since Scotland showed any genuine, meaningful vision for its coast. 

The last example was in the 1970s when the Scottish Council for Development and Industry developed the ‘Oceaspan’ concept. This would have involved the development of a major exporting port on the east coast, another on the west coast, and a superfast rail link between them, making Scotland a transit hub between continental Europe and the American continent (among other things).

It didn’t see the light of day, but it shows the kind of level of vision and ambition which now seems extinct in Scotland. If we had that vision we would be developing an exciting plan for Scotland’s coastal communities and its islands, and would use that to drive economic development across Scotland.

It would start by developing proper exporting ports (and in the case of Cairnryan, the transport links to get there in the first place). That would be linked to a very major marine energy strategy which saw Scotland as a nation with its own economy and not just another licensing stop-off for the world’s energy corporations (the way ScotWind treats the nation).

The reason energy is so important to this strategy is what it makes possible. Personally I do not favour putting too much emphasis on the interconnector idea (exporting the electricity directly over wires) because that basically cuts out Scotland’s economy, taking our energy and sending it abroad without anyone in Scotland really making any gain from it other than by taxing its owner.

There are at least two other better options. One is to use it to create a hydrogen industry. That can’t just be fired straight out of the country through copper wires and so has the potential to drive manufacturing and actual industrial development. The other is to offer this bountiful energy cheaply to energy-intensive industry to get them to set up or locate on Scotland’s coast.

(Remember, all of Scotland’s enormous but currently untapped subsea energy potential is way surplus to Scotland’s needs, generates electricity constantly 24 hours a day and like wind power is inexpensive to produce once the infrastructure is in place.)

A number of big energy-intensive industries would themselves attract other support industries, supply chain businesses, local services and everything else that comes with a well-designed industrial strategy. That mix of hydrogen jobs, other energy jobs, top-up for any domestic electricity requirement if the wind isn’t blowing and exporting anything left over through interconnectors is an appealing package.

We could reform Scotland’s dodgy, monopolised fishing industry to spread the jobs (and particularly the secondary processing jobs) up and down the coast. That can bring gastro-tourism, and lots of other tourist opportunities as well. And we should also co-locate other forms of aquaculture (like enclosed fish farms which don’t pollute) close to this processing.

The cost is a great location for those who are homeworking so offers significant housing development possibilities. We can offset harmful aviation emissions and create more jobs by increasing ferry routes to the continent. And so far I’ve not even left the mainland, considered the potential in the islands or looked at place-specific opportunities.

Better transport links and a proper plan could unlock all of this – but there is no-one advocating for it. Big business in Scotland has no real vision. It just takes. Instead of the opportunities above we get Freeports, cheap deregulation for existing business. My guess is that this will bring jobs like Scotland’s renewable potential brought jobs. Which is to say just about as few as it is possible to bring, as Scotland is treated like what it’s becoming, a fat opportunity for multinational corporations to feast on – with the Scottish Government holding the bib.

I can’t decide which marks the low point for me, the SNP’s Freeports or the comparative lack of protest they have faced. One speaks of a broken democracy, the other of an emaciated civic life. It seems there isn’t much which can be done about this unravelling of the social contract in Scotland.

Unless you raise your voice, say this is wrong, against everything Scotland as a nation stands for and is a massive missed opportunity – and hold the SNP leadership to account for it.

7 thoughts on “The alternative to Freeports”

  1. Fiona McOwan

    Robin, let me be clear, you view of Freeports is pretty much the same as the Scottish Green Party and are not in the Bute House Agreement because of that. It’s my understanding that Councils directly applied for the Freeport status from the UK Government and the Forth one is being celebrated by the folk involved in the Fife Local Recovery Plan. I don’t share that joy as I hae ma doots about the finance and number of jobs figures that are attached.

  2. Ian Davidson

    The shaded circle also shows the potential “blast zone” should the Forth Freeport epicentre at Grangemouth ever combust! One of the few towns in Scotland to have an up to date emergency plan + annual siren test? Just saying!

  3. “A number of big energy-intensive industries would themselves attract other support industries, supply chain businesses, local services and everything else that comes with a well-designed industrial strategy. That mix of hydrogen jobs, other energy jobs, top-up for any domestic electricity requirement if the wind isn’t blowing and exporting anything left over through interconnectors is an appealing package.”
    I am not particularly in favour of Freeports. However, Opportunity Cromarty Firth did have a Hydrogen Programme in their bid.
    https://pocf.co.uk/renewables/
    Why you didn’t mention it?

  4. I’m so glad to have found the article & comments this morning: I’ve been writing individually to organisations including unions and to my MP (SNP, silence) and MSP (SNP, robust defence of them) and searching for the campaign against Freeports that I can join & contribute to – for months.
    Thank you.
    About lack of protest:
    The problem we have in Scotland is there is there no single high profile rallying point for folk ce tried on Freeports. There’s no high profile campaign or organisation running a campaign to simplify the message (the danger of Freeports & the alternative. Or at least I couldn’t find one.

    I genuinely think if we could get the facts across to the public counteract the government & vested interests’ spin, we’d have widespread support for alternatives & generate resistance on a scale that would make them politically unpalatable.
    Basically this needs a campaign – but we’re all knackered with everything else going on.

  5. I know I am not alone in thinking Nicola Sturgeon is way out of her depth on the basic mechanics of leaving the UK.
    Brexit was such a perfect opportunity for Scotland to go it alone, right there and then.
    The outcome of Brexit took everybody by surprise. It even took David Cameron by surprise, so there would have been a lot of leeway regarding the lack of details.
    Now, six years down the line we would be looking at fine-tuning this independence of Westminster, tiresome things like, we get to keep our revenues.
    Should there be a tangible interest in joining in with England on mutually beneficial projects, Scotland would be happy to pay its share and so on.
    Instead, six years down the line, bullying from Westminster is getting worse, the SNP are doing the ‘caught in the headlights’ routine, and nothing has changed since 2014.
    The row of comfy slippers in Westminster doesn’t appear to do anything regarding leaving the UK.
    They can’t even get up and leave the chamber when on so many occasions they had good reason to.
    Boris: “The Scottish Nationalists Party…”
    SNP: Get up go. It’s not as if they are going to lose their well-paid jobs and expense accounts by doing so.
    Banned from WM! Yay. Way to go!

    But no… and if there are indy plans afoot, why are they being kept a secret?
    Two or three years ago there were people on Twitter saying that the plans must be secret from the enemy (aka WM), but even that excuse has fizzled out.

    It’s a dreadful place that Scotland finds itself in.
    Everything is wrong.
    No more EU.
    Ruled by a bunch of corrupt lawbreakers based in Westminster.
    Ruled by a bunch of rabbits caught in the headlights, based in Holyrood.

    What gets me every time is why in 2016 the SNP/Holyrood didn’t stand up for the people of Scotland and tell England if they want to play silly buggers with the UK, that’s their problem, but Scotland is staying put, right where it is, and if it takes a snap referendum, to remain with the EU or remain with U.K, well I would think there would have been very short odds on which way the vote would go.
    As it is, Holyrood has frittered away many years on just about everything that isn’t to do with Indy (their mandate).
    The question is who would replace Nicola Sturgeon?
    Come back Alex, everything is forgiven, please get on with the day job?
    Any other contenders?! The SNP can be so low profile.

  6. Well said, Robin, very much aligns with my own views. As a Policy Advisor to Transform Scotland, the sustainable transport NGO, as connectivity will be critical to the so-called Greenports, perhaps we could initiate a joint campaign on this? I raised the issue with the newly formed Environmental Standards Scotland as part of their strategic plan consultation along with an FOI to Transport Scotland and the response confirms that there are absolutely no standards in place for Greenports or indeed any other ports (lagging behind England on that one), so nothing to measure the supposedly green credentials against.

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