AT THE beginning of September, before political focus temporarily dimmed, the Welsh and UK Governments invited applications for Wales’s first freeport, which is planned to be up and running next year.
After years of wrangling, Welsh Ministers agreed to support freeport policies in Wales after the UK Government agreed delivering them would meet the Welsh Government’s demands for a “partnership of equals”.
Part of the agreement reached placed Wales on the same footing for starter funding after three years in which the UK Government refused to fund Wales to the same level as Scotland and England.
A Welsh freeport will be a special zone with the benefits of simplified customs procedures, relief on customs duties, tax benefits, and development flexibility.
Milford Haven Port Authority, which has already expressed interest in Freeport-status, to push the Haven’s claims to be the location of a Freeport in Wales.
WHAT IS A FREEPORT?
Freeports are a special area where normal tax and customs rules do not apply. These can be airports as well as maritime ports. At a Freeport, imports can enter with simplified customs documentation without paying tariffs.
Businesses operating inside designated areas in and around the port can manufacture goods using the imports and add value before exporting again without ever facing full tariffs or export procedures.
Suppose the goods move out of the Freeport into another part of the country. In that case, however, they must go through the full import process, including paying any tariffs.
The UK was previously home to several Freeports, including Liverpool, Southampton, and the Port of Tilbury.
The legislation governing them was not renewed in 2012 because – while the UK remained a member of the EU and in the EU customs area – the economic case for keeping them was lost.
The UK could have chosen to retain freeports; nothing in EU law prevented them. Ending them was a political choice made by the then-administration.
Despite the absence of freeports, England remains home to 24 free zones, which operate on the same principle: in the Tees Valley and Manchester.
THE BENEFITS FOR PEMBROKESHIRE
The Milford Haven Waterway, a busy energy industry hub, is also a sensitive marine environment.
Supporting a scheme which could potentially undermine the Haven Waterway’s environmental status while pursuing a green energy future will be a difficult balancing act.
Milford Haven Port Authority argues that locating a Freeport in Milford Haven makes sense due to the Haven Waterway’s status as a nationally strategic energy asset and a key trade hub for the British energy supply.
A Freeport, it claims, will be an essential vehicle to help safeguard the existing professional energy jobs and skillsets to utilise for low-carbon ambition while regenerating the economy.
The Port Authority says the port’s existing energy infrastructure presents the opportunity for large-scale hydrogen production and injection with minimal additional infrastructure requirements. Alongside strong wind, wave and tidal resources, deep water access has already accelerated an emerging renewable sector such as floating wind in the Celtic Sea.
The Authority claims that a Freeport could support supply chains from equipment manufacturing to system integration and power connectivity, helping companies develop bankable projects and lower energy costs for UK consumers.
The proximity to major shipping routes and the existence of LNG terminals mean the Haven Freeport could also support a cleaner global maritime sector.
NOT PLAIN SAILING
Although freeports could, theoretically, redress imbalances in the UK’s economy by encouraging economic activity in areas where the economy is weakest, a careful balance must be kept.
The use of government subsidies for freeports – whether through direct grants or tax breaks – potentially falls foul of the WTO rules upon which Westminster seems determined to trade.
While freeports are successful in stimulating investment and jobs in a range of locations worldwide, they are neither a “silver bullet” for all locations nor the only way of boosting the UK’s main global gateways.
Freeports are notorious globally for being used to evade tax, launder money, and ease the transportation of stolen or illicit goods.
Moreover, as the experience at the Teesside Freeport development shows, they can lack any form of accountability and create fewer and less widespread economic opportunities than hoped.
The financial scrutiny of the Teesside Freeport is not much more than zero, and a box-ticking exercise carried out without any forensic examination of where the money goes and how contracts are awarded.
Milford Haven Port Authority operates a trust port. There are no shareholders or owners, and, importantly, its Board has independence of action without independent oversight.
A freeport’s financial structure is, if anything, even more financially opaque.
As public money is being invested in a freeport, proper public scrutiny – not merely loose “oversight” or lip service -must be the minimum standard.
Moreover, a freeport could be a money pit and public funding magnet. Too big an opportunity and too large a political totem to allow to fail, even when its economics don’t add up, freeports could end up being propped up by public money while delivering less than promised on the tin.
In all the positive publicity about a possible Freeport in Milford Haven, the Haven is not alone in wanting one.
Holyhead is Wales’s largest Irish Sea port. It is also in the key marginal constituency of Anglesey.
The stalled Wylfa development for nuclear power (part of the UK’s Government economic and energy strategy) is also on the island, and an already massive and expanding wind farm lies off its coast.
Holyhead links the North Wales corridor to England’s northwest and the Midlands. Transport infrastructure is already better to and from Anglesey than from Pembrokeshire to those destinations and will need less investment.
Cardiff Airport is another potential rival and one that could be especially attractive to the Welsh Government.
Since it bought a controlling stake in the Airport, the Welsh Government has propped it up with loans and grants.
Without Welsh Government support, the Airport would be insolvent.
The Welsh Government might be persuaded that making Cardiff Airport the first of Wales’s freeports would kill two birds with one stone.
It would attract more air and freight traffic to the site and decrease the Airport’s reliance on financial help from the Welsh Government.
As with Holyhead, the transport and infrastructure links from Cardiff Airport to other parts of the UK – in this case, the Midlands, the M4 corridor, and Bristol – are superior to those connecting Milford Haven with those regions.
A substantial concern expressed in a report on the Freeport scheme presented to the County Council is the undeniable fact they often do not create jobs but move them from one area to another.
The economic displacement of employment and funding opportunities could pull jobs and investments from one community to another.
If a new freeport only moved jobs and capital from (say) Newport to either Milford Haven or Holyhead, the economic case for their creation becomes – at best – shaky.
That raises the question of whether freeports provide value for public money through direct investment or tax relief.
Freeports could also be used to erode the high standards the UK currently places on workers’ rights and the environment.
Granting freeport operators carte-blanche to do what they want within a designated development area: for example, by allowing shortcuts through planning and environmental law or through allowing employment practices prevented elsewhere, involves trade-offs with unions and planning authorities could find problematic.
While jobs are needed, it is reasonable to ask what jobs and at what cost.
The experience of Welsh Enterprise Zones suggests few new jobs at a massive cost per head.
At a time of enormous hardship, it’s easy to be gulled by the prospect of large sums of public money and the prospect of that money pulling in private investment.
Tax and tariffs apart, a cautious individual might wonder why, if freeports are such a sure-fire thing, they need so much public money.
CIEH joins over 60 charities calling for measures to tackle fuel poverty this winter
THE CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH (CIEH) has joined over 60 charities in their call for the UK Government to implement a suite of measures to prevent millions of households falling into fuel poverty this winter.
CIEH have signed a joint letter released last week as part of our involvement in the ‘Warm this Winter’ campaign. Warm This Winter is a new campaign demanding the government acts now to help people struggling with energy bills this winter and to ensure we all have access to affordable energy in the future.
The Government has already introduced a number of measures designed to support households with soaring energy bills, namely the Energy Price Guarantee. Originally introduced by Liz Truss, freezing the price cap on energy for two years, it was then reduced to 6 months by the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. Secondly, the Energy Bills Discount Scheme introduced by Boris Johnson, which offers £400 to households, spread over 6 months from October to March.
However, even with the Government’s support package this winter, 7 million UK households will still be in fuel poverty and forced into making impossible choices. This will rise to 11 million households – over a third of UK households – next Spring without additional targeted support.
Warm This Winter are seeking to put pressure on the Government by making the following asks:
- Urgently expand the support available to people this winter, including confirming that benefits will be rise in line with inflation as normal, and clarify the future of financial support from April 2023
- Rapidly embark on a national programme of insulating homes, schools, hospitals and workplaces, which could save households on average around £500 on their bills each year
- Implement a plan for a rapid roll-out, in harmony with nature, of clean, renewable energy to move the UK beyond expensive, volatile fossil fuels and enhance UK energy security
CIEH has consistently supported calls for the Government to both increase financial support for households facing fuel poverty this winter as well as calling for the rollout of a national programme of insulation measures.
Ross Matthew, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said: “CIEH are delighted to lend our support to the Warm This Winter campaign.
“We have been consistent in our calls for the UK Government to provide greater support to households who are being faced with the impossible choice of turning on their heating or putting food on the table.
“While current government measures may prevent a full-blown crisis this winter, we are concerned that there is no long-term plan beyond Spring. That is why we also support Warm this Winter’s calls for the rollout of a national programme of home insulation as well as greater investment in renewable sources of energy in the long term.
“We urge the UK Government to recognise the severity of the situation many households face and to take urgent action.”
Jeremy Hunt sets new direction for government as Truss’s credibility trashed by u-turn
ON MONDAY, Jeremy Hunt unpicked virtually every element of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget to calm financial markets and restore order to chaos.
The new Chancellor’s statement was a sobering reminder that although Prime Ministers serve with their colleagues’ consent, governments cannot survive without market confidence.
Mr Hunt said every Government’s core responsibility was to deliver economic stability.
“No government can control the markets. But every Government can give certainty about the sustainability of the public finances.”
His words were a damning implied indictment of the PM’s economic policy.
FULL REVERSE GEAR
The Chancellor’s words had an immediate effect on markets: the pound strengthened, and UK government bond yields fell to reduce the cost of government borrowing.
The statement might reduce the amount of a projected mortgage interest rise in November.
But make no mistake: the statement is a humiliation for the PM.
Every policy she’s trailed, trumpeted, and brought in has been chucked on the bin fire of her Government’s reputation.
Liz Truss sacked Mr Kwarteng because she did as she said and pursued a policy she endorsed enthusiastically.
The PM’s campaign slogan was “Trusted to Deliver”.
Her detractors pointed out that Liz Truss was pushed by the political winds and could not set her own course.
She’s tried setting her course and crashed the economy into an iceberg.
Moreover, her Cabinet colleagues must wonder whether they can trust the PM to stand behind them when they pursue a government policy she supports.
This is a government living hour-to-hour, in office but not in power, and with its key policies made by financial markets instead of ministers.
GOVERNMENT AIMS TO “REGAIN TRUST”
The Chancellor’s statement pulled no punches about the size of Ms Truss’s and Mr Kwarteng’s miscalculation and overconfidence.
Mr Hunt said: “The government is prepared to act decisively and at scale to regain the country’s confidence and trust.”
The painful use of the word “regain” underlines what the Government lost after September 23.
The Chancellor stated there would be “more difficult decisions” on tax and spending.
Mr Hunt is focused on lowering debt in the medium term and putting public finances on “a sustainable footing”.
Using the word “sustainable” implies the previous plan was unsustainable.
In light of this, government departments will be asked to find efficiencies within their budgets. The Chancellor is expected to announce further changes to its fiscal policy on October 31 to put the public finances on a sustainable footing.
TAX CUTS SCRAPPED
The Chancellor announced a reversal of almost all of the tax measures set out in the Growth Plan that have not been legislated for in parliament.
The following tax policies will no longer be taken forward:
Cutting the basic rate of income tax to 19% from April 2023. While the Government aims to proceed with the cut in due course, this will only happen “when economic conditions allow for it, and a change is affordable”. The basic rate of income tax will therefore remain at 20% indefinitely. This is worth around £6 billion a year.
Cutting dividends tax by 1.25 percentage points from April 2023. The 1.25 percentage points increase, which took effect in April 2022, will remain in place. This is valued at around £1 billion a year.
Repealing the 2017 and 2021 reforms to the off-payroll working rules (also known as IR35) from April 2023. This will cut the Government’s growth plan’s cost by around £2 billion a year.
Introducing a new VAT-free shopping scheme for non-UK visitors to Great Britain. Not proceeding with this scheme is worth around £2 billion a year.
Freezing alcohol duty rates from February 1 2023, for a year. Not proceeding with the freeze is worth approximately £600 million a year.
This follows from the previously announced decisions not to proceed with the Growth Plan proposals to remove the additional income tax rate and to cancel the planned increase in the corporation tax rate.
The changes are estimated to be worth around £32 billion a year.
That still leaves the Government with a lot to find to plug the hole in its finances, which indicates more pain will follow in public spending.
The Government’s reversal of the National Insurance increase, the Health and Social Care Levy, and the Stamp Duty Land Tax cuts will continue to benefit millions of people and businesses.
The £1 million Annual Investment Allowance, the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme and the Company Share Options Plan will continue supporting business investment further.
ENERGY BILL SUPPORT TO CHANGE
In September, the Government announced massive financial support to protect households and businesses from high energy prices.
The Energy Price Guarantee and the Energy Bill Relief Scheme support millions of households and businesses with rising energy costs.
The Chancellor made clear they will continue to do so from now until April next year.
However, looking beyond April, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have agreed that it would be irresponsible for the Government to continue exposing the public finances to unlimited volatility in international gas prices.
A Treasury-led review will therefore be launched to consider how to support households and businesses with energy bills after April 2023. The review’s objective is to design a new approach that will cost the taxpayer significantly less than planned whilst ensuring enough support for those in need.
The Chancellor also said in his statement that any support for businesses will be targeted to those most affected and that the new approach will better incentivise energy efficiency.
“CHAOS AT THE HEART OF GOVERNMENT”
Rebecca Evans, Wales’s Finance Minister, responded: “The complete unravelling of the mini-budget shows the chaos at the heart of the UK Government.
“In six short weeks, the UK Government’s reckless and flawed economic policy has caused mayhem in the financial markets, pushed up mortgage costs and stretched household budgets even further.
“Now the UK Government is rolling back on its energy price support scheme for households, which will only add to the uncertainty people face as they worry about paying their bills.
“The new Chancellor has signalled a new era of austerity to start to fill the hole in public finances.
“We will all pay for the Government’s mistakes. But this is a crisis made in Downing Street and one it needs to address.
“The Chancellor needs to use his next financial statement to provide reassurance we will not see the deep spending cuts that will affect jobs, services and our economy – and to provide support to vulnerable households who have been ignored today.”
Wales stands firm in support for Ukraine
IN THE latest update on the Ukraine crisis, Wales’s Minister for Social Justice Jane Hutt thanked all those households across Wales who have come forward to offer their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the War and encouraged more households to provide this vital support.
APPEAL FOR MORE HOST FAMILIES
The Minister for Social Justice said: “I’m delighted to say that over 5,650 people from Ukraine, sponsored by the Welsh Government and Welsh households, have already arrived in the UK.
“More than 8,200 visas have now been issued to people from Ukraine who have sponsors in Wales, so we expect the number of arrivals to continue to grow in the coming weeks.
“Thousands of Welsh households sponsored Ukrainians to arrive in Wales and committed to hosting them for at least six months.
“As we move into the autumn, we approach the end of that initial period.
“We hope hosts and Ukrainians will agree to extend many of those placements, but we need additional hosts to support those who cannot continue living where they are.
“To ensure a warm welcome to Wales, I’m inviting households across Wales to come forward and open their homes to welcome those seeking sanctuary.
“We’re immensely thankful to all those across Wales acting as hosts to Ukrainians, but more households must come forward.
“I completely understand that there are those who want to help but may not have the resources to do so, given the circumstances we’re all facing with the cost-of-living crisis.”
WALES WILL STEP UP TO THE PLATE
Jane Hutt continued: “What we all know, and has been proven countless times, is that the people of Wales are one of the most generous across the globe, and I’m sure we will step up to the plate once again.
“The idea of hosting can be daunting. That’s why we have funded Housing Justice Cymru to provide a Host Support service which includes expert and reliable information, training, advice, and guidance for people hosting, or those considering hosting, Ukrainians in Wales.
“More information on sessions and training can be found on the Housing Justice Cymru website. We also publish regularly updated guidance for hosts and sponsors at gov. wales/ukraine.
“We still need many more households to consider whether they could provide a home for those in need. This would normally be a commitment to hosting for 6 to 12 months.
“If anyone is considering this, we encourage them to register their interest at gov.wales/offerhome, and to attend one of the ‘Introduction to Hosting’ sessions, facilitated by Housing Justice Cymru. You won’t need to continue the process if you decide it is not for you.
“We have also partnered with Airbnb.org to ensure very short-term emergency placements can be provided to prevent homelessness.
“If you cannot host for more than 6 months but you could offer your property for up to 30 days at a time, you may also be able to contribute. Visit gov.wales/offerhome and follow the link to the Airbnb.org platform.”
Finally, the Minister stated: “We will continue to communicate with those who host Ukrainians, with updated guidance and information to support the valuable role you are undertaking.
“To all those that are already hosting and to those that are considering hosting, thank you, we owe you all a huge debt of gratitude.”
WESTMINSTER MUST BACK HOSTS
DURING COST-OF-LIVING CRISIS
Conservative MS Mark Isherwood raised how the cost-of-living crisis affects Ukrainian refugees.
Where families had taken in those fleeing Russian aggression, he noted a risk of sponsorships not continuing beyond six months because the hosts cannot afford the rise in fuel costs.
He asked the Minister what discussions she’d had with the UK Government about increasing the £350 contribution to households who’d taken in Ukrainian refugees.
The Minister agreed with Mark Isherwood that ending a specific ministerial post dealing with refugees was regrettable.
She noted a lack of information from the UK Government over the summer months and since Liz Truss replaced Boris Johnson as head of the Conservative Government.
Ms Hutt said: “We asked for an increase at least to £500, or up again, doubling to £700 per month. An urgent decision is needed regarding this as they reach the end of their six-month period.
“That period is underway, so we’re writing to all hosts to see if they will continue.”
UK GOVERNMENT URGED
TO PICK UP THE PHONE
The Minister thanked Mark Isherwood for introducing her to a charity offering support in North Wales, Link, and hoped that he and his colleagues would bring pressure to bear on their Westminster colleagues to ensure those in need from Ukraine and those in Wales helping them received support.
She added: “I look forward perhaps that we might have some telephone calls from the Prime Minister and other Ministers to us in Government. We must engage with them and follow this through.
“There is a huge job of work to be done here. We’re taking responsibility in the way I’ve outlined, funding our welcome centres and paying thank-you payments to hosts if they support a family who initially arrived in Wales under the Ukraine family scheme.
“That’s not happening in England. The commitment that we’re making is considerable.
“I hope everyone will join us today, saying that we need to press for those answers in terms of financial support.”
THE THREAT OF HOMELESSNESS
Sioned Williams of Plaid Cymru raised the spectre of Ukrainian refugees becoming homeless in Wales due to a lack of financial support and the end of existing hosting and housing placements.
The Minister praised the work of local authorities across Wales supporting refugees.
She said: “There are very imaginative programmes. That includes a whole range of issues like repurposing empty buildings.
“Local authorities are really coming up with a whole range of ways in which we can support people, perhaps, from a welcome centre, or a host family, into that intermediate accommodation, and then on to other longer-term accommodation.”
Pembrokeshire currently houses around 200 Ukrainian refugees, with the demand for assistance outstripping the availability of suitable accommodation.
NOT ONE PENNY FROM WESTMINSTER
TO SUPPORT FAMILIES FLEEING WAR
Responding to a question from Mabon ap Gwynfor about problems housing family groups, Jane Hutt hit out at the lack of support from the UK Government and how it’s u-turned on a commitment to help families.
“The UK Government has never given a penny towards the family scheme.
“The former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in one of his last PMQs, actually said that he thought the Ukraine family scheme should get the same funding and support as the Homes for Ukraine scheme. It’s never happened.
“We have provided thank-you payments to people who are hosting Ukrainian families. It’s all Welsh Government money; it’s not UK Government, because they don’t provide a penny. And also, the British Red Cross—£246,000—who are actually supporting Ukrainian families who are hosting family members under the Ukrainian family scheme.”
On Wednesday, September 28, Eluned Morgan, Wales’s Health Minister, announced the continuation of free healthcare in Wales to Ukrainian residents displaced by the ongoing conflict.
The exemption will continue to apply unless there’s a significant change in circumstances in Ukraine.