Bath university leaders backing bid to create ‘economy-boosting’ Great Western Freeport

February 19, 2021

The vice-chancellors of both of Bath’s universities and the principal of its main college have joined business leaders from across the West of England in backing the creation of a ‘free port’ in the region.

Prof Ian White and Prof Sue Rigby of the University of Bath and Bath Spa University respectively and Laurel Penrose from Bath College are among the signatories to a letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak supporting the bid for government funding for the Great Western Freeport. 

The scheme, which gained all-party political support earlier this month, would turn a huge site at Avonmouth and Severnside near Bristol into one of a new generation of ‘freeports’, potentially giving the region’s economy a massive post-pandemic boost and creating up to 50,000 jobs.

Freeports, which offer tax concessions granted to goods brought into them, as long as they do not leave the port area, have been in operation for centuries.

The latest tranche is being heavily promoted by the government. However, they also have many critics who fear they will become tax havens and have looser labour rights and environmental protections than elsewhere while claims they will create employment were open to question as jobs could simply be moved from other areas.

The bid was officially submitted to the government by the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), which includes Bath & North East Somerset Council.

The letter to Mr Sunak, which has also been signed by Colin Skellett – group chief executive of Bath-based Wessex Water’s parent group YTL – says that a Great Western Freeport would be “what levelling up looks like up close”.

It continues: “As organisations responsible for economic leadership and supporting businesses who invest and create jobs across our regions, we strongly support the government’s ambition to create a new era of global trade in the UK and enable stronger, successful and more resilient, inclusive local economies.  

“With a deep-sea port at its heart, the proposed Great Western Freeport is perfectly placed to realise this ambition, as a world-class hub for global trade and investment.

“In doing so, it can deliver the government’s industrial strategy and drive to rebalance and level up economic growth across the UK.”

It says the reasons for this were strong and supported by partners working across the West of England and the wider South West.

These include:

Opening a freeport in the region would lead to significant economic growth for the UK, which independent analysis estimates to be worth almost £6bn a year.  

Independent analysis commissioned by WECA also shows that the Great Western Freeport could create up to 50,000 jobs in the region and 90,000 jobs nationally.  

The West of England already has 480 hectares of ‘shovel-ready’ brownfield regeneration sites, offering clear and accessible opportunities which are immediately deliverable to enable a fast-track response.  

The freeport would have world-class connectivity and could create a gateway to global markets, enabled by 5G.  

Bristol Port is already strategically placed on US and Asian trade routes and, coupled with the freeport financial regime, would help leverage new investment into the UK to ‘Build Back Better.

The letter also says the freeport would bring new opportunities to business, with opportunities and space to start-up, grow, diversify and adapt, to create new products and services, and form and integrate into new supply chains in sectors fit for the future.

The West of England, it points out, is a hot bed of activity in accelerating responses to climate change, leading on digital innovation, robotics, advanced propulsion systems, aerospace, composites and fusion.  

It also says the high-performing academic institutions in Bath and Bristol would lead to research and development, innovation and technological advancement and provide new skills and training.

The Great Western Freeport submission has already been supported by the Liberal-Democrat leader of Bath & North East Somerset Council Dine Romero. She said: “We always champion investment in economic growth for the area to create job opportunities and so we welcome this bid.

“It will support the whole region as we work together to recover from the impact of Covid-19. I’m pleased to see the proposal focuses on green economic growth as this also supports our climate emergency priorities.”

Other signatories to the letter include members of the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) board as well as IoD South West chair Muir Macdonald, Bristol Airport chief executive  Dave Lees, Lee Nathan, regional chairman of the Federation of Small Business, and Katherine Bennett, chair of the Western Gateway, the body aiming to grow the economy of a region stretching from Swindon through Bath to Cardiff. 



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