Opinion: should we be worried that Southampton is a Freeport?  (hint: yes)

Opinion: should we be worried that Southampton is a Freeport? (hint: yes)

by Charlie Hislop.

I’ve been interested in the development of cities and how they work since I was a student in the 70s, and if something new is going to affect my city’s future, I’m on it. Southampton has been designated as a Freeport, so I’ve been taking a look.

There have been pictures of men in hard hats in the local press, and a couple of events for businesses in recent months, but it’s not something that the government has made a lot of noise about and information is not widespread. But Freeports seem to fit into a much bigger global picture that could signal some serious changes for everyone. So I’m quite worried. 

Considering the things that the prime minister candidates aren’t talking about, it’s interesting that  they have both mentioned special areas for growth and investment. ‘Freeports’ Sunak calls them, ‘Investment Zones’, says Truss. 

Interestingly, Sunak studied at Stanford University in the USA, and his mentor there, economist Paul Romer, is a strong proponent of something called ‘Charter Cities’. He even helped set one up – an Economic Development and Employment Zone (ZEDE) called ‘Prospera’ in Honduras. On the other hand, Truss’s leadership campaign has picked up on a few policy initiatives from the Tax Payers Alliance, who are strong advocates of Charter Cities, and part of a global network of think tanks, organisations and corporations committed to seeing the idea developed on the ground.

One thing that has been decided already in the UK is who will manage the Freeports and the areas they will cover. DP World had the contracts for managing the Solent and Thames freeports, although it has now left the Solent Consortium.  Remember when P&O Ferries sacked all its staff and replaced them with people on lower wages and no rights? DP World are the owners of P&O Ferries. That’s a worry for a start.

Freeports are said to attract investment and stimulate economic growth, and therefore create jobs. The reasons for that are that companies within them will have tax and duty exemptions, and reduced regulation or ‘red tape’.  Whether inland or not, they are called ‘ports’ because they are considered to be ‘offshore’ – not part of the country that hosts them. 

‘Offshore’ – that’s a word we have all heard before. The tax havens that allow people and companies to avoid tax, hide wealth, and hide ownership of property and land in the UK and elsewhere. At the moment, ‘offshore’ is mainly about money, but imagine if it included all kinds of activities within its area: extracting raw materials, manufacturing, production, distribution, retail, or services. Imagine large parts of the global economy happening outside national economies or jurisdictions. 

De-regulation has been a trend in Britain since the 1980s, although lots of regulations are actually rights and protections for employees, consumers and the public. On the Government website, there is information about Freeports and their benefits, tax exemptions and so on for businesses. But what about anyone else? What if you find yourself working in one – how are you affected? Do you have the same rights as everyone else ? There’s not a single word. 

What if you live in one, how are you affected? What laws, regulations, protections and rights would still apply? What about planning law, common land, pollution limits, building accessibility, wildlife protection? Are those all ‘de-regulated’? 

Freeports are not just a small industrial or business area. The proposed Solent Freeport stretching along the coast includes a major part of the New Forest National Park. Why? [EDIT: as well as underming national park protections, the proposal also opens the possibility of the previously rejected expansion of the container port into Dibden Bay. Thanks Keith Magee and @josierosanna.] The Teesside freeport area coincidently includes a wide area of the North Sea where there have been recent reports of toxic waste killing off fish, shellfish stocks and the local fishing industry – which might make a sceptic think about industrial waste liability regulations. 

So if the details about life in a Freeport area in the UK are bit thin, let’s look at what happens elsewhere in the other ‘offshore’ ‘free zone’, ‘special investment zone’ ‘charter city’ projects being developed around the world from Ukraine to China where workers live in dormitories in the special economic zones far from home, and with few right or protections. Or Neom, a major new private city project owned by a company set up by Saudi Arabia’s ruler Mohammed bin Salman. 

Prospera in Honduras is a private city (ZEDE), owned by large-scale foreign investors. It is run by 4 appointed trustees and five elected ‘Residents’.  The number of votes ‘residents’ have  is dependent on the square metres of land they own – similar to England’s ‘rotten boroughs’ in Poldark’s time.  Not just anyone can live there. New residents have to be approved by the corporation, sign a contractual ‘Agreement of Co-existence’ which sets out their rights and responsibilities. They pay ($260 Hondurans, $1300 foreigners) every year simply for the privilege of living there, as well as buy insurance from the city corporation. ‘Self-responsibility’ is part of that contract, ‘contentious politics’ is banned, and there is no social welfare of any kind. The ZEDE was granted its special status and powers by the Honduran government, although following a lot of local protest there’s been a re-think. 

Initially, I thought this all sounded a bit far-fetched… and then I remembered the City of London right on our doorstep. 

Over the last 1000 years the City of London has had a special status in England. Governing itself since Roman times, it grew rich as the British Empire’s financial hub of trade, and as the empire contracted it drove the development of the ‘Offshoring’ economy overseas, and the Eurodollar market at home – the heart of the City’s money laundering reputation. 

The Queen has to ask permission from the Lord Mayor to enter the City of London,  and it is outside the authority of the Mayor of London. The Corporation that runs its affairs is a private company, and exists to represent the City’s interests (with a representative/lobbyist in the House of Commons), as well as acting like a local authority. Businesses are the major voters in its elections, their size determining the number of votes they have, and it has an independent police force. 

So maybe this isn’t all so far-fetched after all, but I’m left with some questions…

What happens to our idea of democracy – one person one vote – in those areas? What about people who aren’t ‘suitable’, or can no longer afford to live in these zones? Who does all those services jobs in a freeport and where might they live? What rights and protections do residents and workers have? What happens outside these special zones? How does the national government raise its revenue for services if most business and finance is ring-fenced in these zones and not contributing its share to the national kitty?  

In my mind’s eye I see this as a giant version of those gated communities for the super wealthy, or the town centres that now have a business improvement district to run them, and privately policed shopping areas. We can look back at the city states of Italy in mediaeval times – great wealth and global trading, a servile labour force and feudalism, independence from the sovereign. It looks similar, and quite possibly the proposed Freeports are a first step in that direction.

Who knows – it is really hard to find answers. There certainly isn’t any public debate or much media coverage – just a few glossy brochures, and some very powerful organisations and people globally advocating for it. 

After looking into all this, I’m not so much worried, I’m actually really rather frightened of what the future holds. The UK over forty years sold off or contracted out many of its natural resources and assets to private business. I’m left wondering is the end game to sell off bits of the country, too? I hope someone will tell me I’m just imagining things. 

But don’t take my word for it – freeports, special economic zones, charter cities: start looking it up for yourselves.  

The most detailed source of information about Charter Cities is www.bakerstreetherald.com , and on social media @mattprescott, and @bakerstherald are excellent to follow and open up other avenues.

Information about the current proposed freeports are on the Government website, and the Charter Cities project at the Charter Cities Institute website.

Picture: Mike Daish


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