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  • Lawrence Bailey

Politicians all at sea over freeports



If the worlds of politics and fashion share anything then it’s knowing the intrinsic value of reinvention.


As hemlines go up and down in the fashion world, so jaded policy duds are dusted off by ministers and offered as something radical.


At least that seemed to be the case when Welsh Secretary Simon Hart recently told MPs that a “freeport” could create 15,000 Welsh jobs.


I assume that everyone was supposed to then run off and prepare for yet another one of those competitions where the winner was promised a notional economic advantage of sorts.


Unluckily for Mr Hart, someone recalled that freeports were actually little more than a Thatcherite hangover and more a symptom of a downbeat economic status rather than an actual remedy.


Another factor was that what had once passed for a Welsh freeport had since been systematically strangled of trade by the Bristol-Avonmouth commercial axis that dominates shipping in our part of the world.


When the decline of the state industries first began in earnest fifty years ago, South Wales seaports faced the dilemma of too many berths and not enough ships. A combination of privatisation and the container revolution spawned a leaner industry, which caused ports like Swansea to eventually turn its back on a sea that had once engendered its fortune.


Through the decades there were few blips of activity in the semi-derelict docklands. One example being the Swansea-Cork ferry which operated from 1987-2006 and again from 2010 to 2012.


In 1990, a campaign to stop the establishment of a reprovisioning berth for nuclear submarines at Swansea Docks was successful. It was one of those rare occasions when the city was happy to lose out to Cardiff.


It’s been said rather unkindly that Swansea doesn’t have a mixed economy so much as a muddled collection of diverse initiatives all more or less going in the same direction; all at different speeds and with different agendas.


I’d say that anyone who signs up to that description doesn’t quite grasp the concept of diversification. But even they would have to agree that the prospect of jumping hoops to obtain freeport status is a non-starter.


Freeports and enterprise zones don’t create new money but merely entice investment away from somewhere else at the expense of those local economies.


There are far more effective ways of redistributing wealth through regional support grants or tweaking the UK allocations system. Of course, that would require an actual policy rather than a competition. How unfashionable.




Back on the road to nowhere


Things came to a halt in Wales this week when ministers announced that all new road-building projects are being frozen while the Welsh government conducts a review.


Critics have rightly pointed out that there was no mention of this kind of action in that part of the Labour manifesto which talked about vehicle emissions. The same critics claim that it’s not roads that cause emissions but the vehicles which use them.


The UK government has ruled that new cars and vans powered wholly by petrol and diesel will not be sold in the UK from 2030. Given that the lead time for getting new road construction off the drawing board is around seven years or more, the impression is that this hasn’t been thought through it terms of timing.


As you would expect, for every voice demanding less cars on the road there is another shouting about the need for new infrastructure to boost an ailing economy – something which did get a mention in the manifesto.

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