'Green port' proposal
McKee accused of u-turn on freeport plan
Ivan McKee: new model (pic: Terry Murden)
Scottish trade minister Ivan McKee has been accused of a humiliating u-turn by embracing Tory proposals for freeports just weeks after claiming they were “low wage, low value opportunities”.
Mr McKee has unveiled a plan to create what the Scottish government describes as “a new model of green ports”.
He says these would “adapt the UK government’s freeport proposals, offering streamlined planning processes and a package of tax and customs relief.”
However, at the SNP conference at the end of November he urged delegates to acknowledge “that freeports cannot and will not offset the damage caused by Brexit”.
A motion was passed saying freeports were “entirely at odds with the SNP’s ambition for Scotland’s economy to continue to build a high productivity, high wage, innovative economy built on the strength of our world leading technology, businesses and academic clusters.”
Before the conference Scottish Secretary Alistair Jack accused the SNP of continuing creating conflict with Westminster. “SNP ministers need to take the batteries out of the grievance machine, stop stirring conflict with the UK Government, and seek to work with us instead,” he said.
The Scottish Government today insisted its green ports would differ from freeports bym being fairer and more legally sound.
It said operators of its green ports would “pay the real Living Wage, adopt the Scottish Business Pledge, commit to supporting sustainable and inclusive growth in local communities and contribute to Scotland’s just transition to net zero.”
Mr McKee, who will hold discussions on the proposal with the UK Government next week, said: “The reputation of freeports across the world is mixed, with concerns about deregulation and risks of criminality, tax evasion and reductions in workers’ rights raised.
“That is not a model nor an approach that this Scottish Government will sign up to or allow here in Scotland.
“And it is clear that freeports cannot and will not undo the damage being caused to Scotland’s economy by the UK Government’s decision to take us out of the EU, the world’s biggest single market.
“Instead, we propose to take the freeport model and apply Scotland’s priorities to it, so that it meets our ambition to deliver a net zero, wellbeing economy that upholds the highest standards of environmental protections and fair work practices and supports our strategy of building clusters of high productivity businesses across Scotland’s regions.
“We have listened to what businesses and communities have said and there is an appetite for new ways to support our economy through the recovery.
“The Scottish green port model will be an exemplar, adopting best practice which helps deliver our net-zero emissions and fair work principles, alongside supporting regeneration and innovation ambitions.”
But Scottish Conservatives economy spokesman Maurice Golden said: “This is a humiliating climb-down for the SNP. Just a few months ago, Ivan McKee was claiming that freeports are a “shiny squirrel” and the SNP conference backed a motion slamming them.
Port of Cromarty wants to set up a freeport
“This screeching SNP u-turn is very welcome. It seems they have finally realised that businesses are desperate to reap the benefits from freeports.
“The Scottish Conservatives and UK Government have said for months that the SNP should stop playing politics and start working constructively to take these proposals forward.
“Yet again, the SNP treated business as an afterthought. They ignored the benefits to make political points and only now have they finally backed down.”
Port of Cromarty Firth is keen to develop a free port or free trade area. Bob Buskie, chief executive of the port, speaking on behalf of Opportunity Cromarty Firth, was in no doubt that the Scottish Government was proposing a “freeport”.
He said: “We are delighted that the Scottish Government has given the green light to the idea of freeports in Scotland.
“This will ensure Ports are able to compete on a level playing field with their counterparts in the rest of the UK.”
He added that a freeport “would create quality jobs and business opportunities across the Highlands and the whole of Scotland on a level not seen since the oil boom of the 1970s.”
The moves comes as a senior civil servant has revealed the SNP have not spent around £50 million of Brexit funds, after insisting repeatedly they had already used the money.
Before the UK Parliament public audit committee today, UK Civil Service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm said “about £48 or £49 million remains to be spent this year” of funds provided to the SNP to prepare for Brexit changes.
Mr Golden said: “While SNP ministers like Kate Forbes are trying to manufacture funding grievances with the UK Government, they’re not getting Brexit funding and business funding out the door quickly enough.
“Instead of doing whatever they can to help Scottish exports through this transition period, the SNP are leaving cash unspent and not lifting a finger.”