KAREN Jones, the Chief executive of Neath Port Talbot council has spoken this week about the potential benefits a free-port bid in the south -west Wales area could have on its residents if given the go-ahead in 2023.
The bid which was set up by Associated British Ports, alongside Neath Port Talbot Council, Pembrokeshire County Council and the Port of Milford Haven, was launched in 2022 with the aim of becoming Wales’ first free-port.
Free-ports are special areas within the UK’s borders where different economic regulations apply, such as tax incentives for eligible businesses within them. They also offer simplified customs procedures, and streamlined planning processes to boost redevelopment in the area’s near to them.
Backers for the south west Wales region have previously claimed that a free-port known as the Celtic Freeport, could create more than 16,000 new jobs and generate up to £5.5bn of investment for the two areas.
Speaking to the LDR service Chief executive Karen Jones, said the bid could be the greatest opportunity she has seen in her professional career if it were to be given the green light later this year.
She said: “The Freeport bid will accelerate the opportunity that exists for the area to benefit from the developments in the renewable energy sector, with proposals to licence a development out in the Celtic Sea that will see a significant floating offshore wind-farm, with ongoing work to create and develop hydrogen technology as a replacement for fossil fuels.
“The bid that we’ve put in proposes that the port of Port Talbot would be ideally placed to manufacture and fabricate the structures for the turbines, and then the port of Milford Haven would be best placed to do the ongoing maintenance of the turbines.
“We estimate that the economic benefit of the Celtic Sea wind-farm will be something like £54 Billion pounds, so you’re talking about absolutely huge amounts of money, and what we want is to make sure that flows back in to the UK, and in to Wales in particular.”
“We also estimate 16,500 jobs could be created by this, and they would be new jobs because they’d support the new green industry that’s emerging. Because it’s co-located on the same site as Tata there is also an opportunity that this development could actually create work for the steel works and help to de-carbonise the steel works as well.
“Jobs are the big thing, with the economic benefit that comes from that, but for us we’ve got an area that has been really blunted by the decline of the mining industry, and I’m not aware in my whole professional career of an opportunity on this scale that can start to reverse the economic situation of our former mining areas, as well as keeping our brightest and best people in the county borough.”
Jones who has been the chief executive of the county borough since taking over from Steve Phillips in 2020 went on to discuss how a free-port could attract a number of new businesses to the area as well as how it could impact residents.
She said: “A free-port gives tax concessions to new economic activity, so there’s an incentive for companies to set up there. For us then we’d get to retain business rates so we think we’d get around half a billion pounds over the lifetime of the free-port programme that we can use to invest in infrastructure, so that will enable us to create an even more attractive environment for bringing investors in.
“This won’t just be developments around roads and bridges and that type of thing though. It will also enable us to invest in skills and training because we are really keen that local people and local businesses can benefit from this.
“We’re mapping the supply chain right across the south west Wales region, but it’s also wider than that because the supply chain for this industry will need to be very significant, so many businesses across the whole of Wales would benefit.”
In terms of the timeline, Jones said with the results of the bid being released some time in the spring, it could mean work would begin as early as 2024 if successful.
She added: “For us we are clear that we think we have the most compelling bid because it’s linked to this particular opportunity around the floating off-shore wind-farm. The intelligence we’ve got indicates that it will probably be early March when we find out, so its not too far away.
“What has to happen then is because the free-port policy is very expensive, the treasury in London would want to be satisfied that the cost to the public purse is going to be justified by the benefits that we’re going to deliver.
“What we will have to do is compile a final business case where all of the detail of what we’re going to do across the two ports would need to be mapped out before the treasury will give a tick in the box to say they are satisfied, so there’d be a lot of work to do.
“We’d have to set up a free-port company to oversee the running of the free-port itself, but the two councils then would have control over the money so we’d also have to have a joint investment board where we’d have recommendation about where they want the investment to go.
“For me, I grew up in the Rhondda valley and I’ve lived through the decline of the mining industry and I’ve seen the impact that’s had not just on individual people but on whole communities, so I think if we can get investment of this scale in to the borough we can have a much brighter future.”