A cross-party group of MPs and MSPs wrote to new prime minister Liz Truss immediately upon her appointment last week to press the case for a joint bid by Aberdeen and Peterhead as the site of one of two expected freeports in Scotland, reports Andy Read.
A total of 10 new freeports are planned for the UK as a whole. In Scotland, five applications have been made, the others being Glasgow, Orkney, Inverness and Leith/Grangemouth. With Leith/ Grangemouth widely tipped as the front-runner, competition for the second spot is fierce.
Proponents of freeports suggest that their special status – allowing in low-tariff goods for value addition before they are subsequently re-exported – create efficient hotbeds of innovation, expanded employment and export opportunities.
Critics say that they rarely provide the economic and employment benefits touted, and that they act as a disincentive for long-term investment elsewhere along the coast. Dredging resulting from the creation of the freeport in the Tees in North East England is widely blamed by fishermen in the region for leading to the mass shellfish die-offs reported there.
£52m of UK government ‘Levelling Up’ funds are promised to support the two winning Scottish schemes. Neil O’Brien, the UK minister for Levelling Up and the Union, who has responsibility for the project, said: “I’m delighted that our proposal to establish two Green Freeports has received five strong bids from ports right across Scotland.
“I look forward to announcing the successful Green Freeports later this year and seeing them deliver for the people of Scotland.”
The joint Peterhead/Aberdeen proposal, branded as ‘North East Scotland Green Freeport’, will concentrate on attracting renewable energy investments to the two ports, which it is suggested will create the bulk of the 32,000 new jobs that freeport status could help to create.
The South Harbour in Peterhead is already powered by a direct link to renewable energy – any boats plugging in to the power at the South Harbour are using zero-emission electricity.
Andrew Ritchie, the interim chairman of the board of the North East Scotland Green Freeport, said: “The North East Scotland Green Freeport will transform our region into a global leader in sustainable energy and innovation.
“It will secure vital trade and turbocharge our transition to a greener future. It will usher in a new era of investment, with projected regional growth of £8.5bn.”
In spite of misgivings amongst some in the catching sector about the roughshod way wind farm developers are expanding their footprint across fishing grounds, there was widespread acceptance across the industry that the Levelling Up funding the bid could attract would have significant benefits for processors, and hence demand for landings into Peterhead.
The fish-processing sector issued a statement last week strongly supporting the bid (see right), based on plans for the creation of a state-of-the-art seafood park, which will encourage the investment widely seen as vital to expanding the capacity of the processing sector.
Comment from the catching sector was more muted. One skipper who wished to remain anonymous told FN: “We struggle right now to recruit local crew. If there is a bonanza of new jobs on renewable energy boats based in Peterhead, our lives will be even harder.”
Speaking for the Don Fishing Company, however, director Bill McKenzie said: “As Scotland’s leading fish-selling and vessel management company, the Don Fishing Company warmly welcomes the bid.
“Securing Green Freeport status will create a more favourable investment climate in North East Scotland and catalyse momentum in the Seafood Transformation project, which aims to enhance the performance of the local seafood processing sector. In turn, this will strongly benefit the fishing industry.”
Gordon MP Richard Thomson, one of a number of SNP politicians backing the bid, which has achieved cross-party political support, said: “The North East bid should absolutely get the go-ahead. However, there’s no reason to restrict Scotland to two sites, and if there’s a compelling case for other sites to also succeed, then I’d be very happy to see those progress as well.”
His comments follow on from earlier support for Peterhead by first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said during a visit there that she wanted the region to become the ‘net zero capital of Europe’.
Local MP for Buchan and Banff David Duguid is equally supportive. He told Fishing News: “A freeport in Peterhead would be hugely beneficial for our seafood sector.
“Over the years I have engaged heavily with Peterhead Port Authority on the potential for a freeport bid.
“I’m extremely excited at the prospect of a seafood park being based in the North East if the bid is successful.
“Whatever happens with this bid, I will continue to encourage both of Scotland’s governments to press on with taking advantage of the phenomenal benefits that our port has to offer.”
Strong support from seafood sector for Peterhead bid
Seafood processors united last week to issue a statement supporting the North East Scotland Green Freeport bid, which they said could be a massive long-term boost for processors and fishermen alike, attracting up to £77m into the fisheries sector, of which almost £50m could be invested in processing.
The Scottish Seafood Association, representing 75 companies across Scotland, described proposals to increase annual turnover by up to £175m, tackle acute labour shortages and improve productivity as ‘truly transformational’.
Plans for a new Sustainable Seafood Park are being developed as part of the bid by an industry steering group, for new and expanding processors. The park would be net zero through shared renewable energy sources, infrastructure and waste facilities.
SSA chief executive Jimmy Buchan said: “Scotland’s seafood sector produces nutritious, low-carbon protein food of the highest quality.
“It has worked very hard to punch above its weight in recent years, amid some serious challenges, especially around investment and labour supply.
“We are hugely supportive of the North East Scotland Green Freeport bid because it recognises the intractability of those challenges and proposes concrete solutions that will have a truly transformational impact on the sector.
“Ministers in both of Scotland’s governments must recognise the breadth of vision, not only for seafood but for sectors across the North East economy, and approve the bid.”
David Leiper, managing director of Seafood Ecosse, said: “Seafood Ecosse – a major exporter of premium-quality seafood – is strongly supportive of the bid to secure Green Freeport status for North East Scotland.
“With the North East of Scotland a vital part of the new world, where energy and food security is top of the agenda, I can see no better area in the UK for Green Freeport status.
“We are based in Peterhead and believe it is vital that the seafood industry accelerates the scale of investment to enable its full economic potential to be expressed. Securing Green Freeport status will complement the Seafood Transformation Project and represent a major step forward for the whole fishing and seafood sector, which is a key component of the local and national economy.”
Ryan Scatterty, chief executive officer of Thistle Seafoods, said: “Thistle Seafoods is hugely supportive of the North East Scotland Green Freeport bid. With our growing export markets and the ever-competitive international scene, this can only be a boost to the North East and wider Scottish economy.
“The North East has long been an economic powerhouse, not just in Scotland but also the United Kingdom, and a successful bid will see the entrepreneurial spirit of the North East come to the fore once again to make it an undoubted success.
“We encourage the Scottish and British government to back the North East bid to maximise the potential of the region and help with the transition to a more balanced and sustainable economy.”
This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here.