SNP accused of 'humiliating climbdown' over UK freeport plans

THE SNP has been accused of performing a "screeching U-turn" over plans to introduce freeports. It came as Scottish ministers announced they are developing plans to adapt the UK Government's post-Brexit freeport proposals, offering "streamlined planning processes and a package of tax and customs reliefs" in special areas. The Scottish Government has labelled its plans "green ports" and insisted they will be fair and sustainable. 

But critics raised concerns the move risks "greenwashing a deregulated race to the bottom". The Scottish Tories said the "screeching SNP U-turn" was "very welcome".  The party pointed to previous comments by SNP trade minister Ivan McKee, who last year called the UK's freeport plans a "shiny squirrel" to distract from the negative impacts of Brexit.

In November, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also said she remains "concerned that the focus of freeports may be on the low-cost, low-wage, low-value opportunities with which they are sometimes associated globally".  Scottish Tory economy spokesman Maurice Golden MSP said: "This is a humiliating climbdown for the SNP." He added: "It seems they have finally realised that businesses are desperate to reap the benefits from freeports.

"The Scottish Conservatives and UK Government have said for months that the SNP should stop playing politics and start working constructively to take these proposals forward. "Yet again, the SNP treated business as an afterthought. They ignored the benefits to make political points and only now have they finally backed down."

Ministers at Westminster hope to establish at least seven freeports in England, with these areas set to benefit from "generous" tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and wider government support. Rail, air and maritime ports may all be suitable for freeport status depending on both the port and the area around it. Firms would be able to import goods into a freeport without paying tariffs, process them, and then either pay a tariff on goods sold into the domestic market, or export the final goods without paying UK tariffs.

The Scottish Government said its green ports would be focused on inclusive growth, fair work practices and delivering a net-zero economy. It said the plans would make it necessary for operators and businesses benefitting from the package of incentives to pay the real living wage, adopt the Scottish Business Pledge, commit to supporting sustainable and inclusive growth in local communities, and contribute to Scotland's transition to net-zero. Mr McKee will hold discussions with the UK Government next week.

He said: "The reputation of freeports across the world is mixed, with concerns about deregulation and risks of criminality, tax evasion and reductions in workers' rights raised.  "That is not a model nor an approach that this Scottish Government will sign up to or allow here in Scotland. "And it is clear that freeports cannot and will not undo the damage being caused to Scotland's economy by the UK Government's decision to take us out of the EU, the world's biggest single market.

"Instead, we propose to take the freeport model and apply Scotland's priorities to it, so that it meets our ambition to deliver a net zero, wellbeing economy that upholds the highest standards of environmental protections and fair work practices and supports our strategy of building clusters of high productivity businesses across Scotland's regions. "We have listened to what businesses and communities have said and there is an appetite for new ways to support our economy through the recovery. "The Scottish green port model will be an exemplar, adopting best practice which helps deliver our net-zero emissions and fair work principles, alongside supporting regeneration and innovation ambitions."

Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, welcomed the move. She said: "Businesses needs all the tools in our toolbox to enable us to grow and to compete with freeport models across the globe. "Scotland's green ports approach, which couples the incentives of a UK-freeport model and Scotland-specific initiatives, has the ambition to drive business growth and job creation.

"This is an important step to ensuring Scotland remains attractive and competitive to domestic and international investors." But Scottish Greens environmental spokesman Mark Ruskell said: "Simply calling a freeport 'green' doesn't guarantee environmental and workers standards, and presents a real risk of greenwashing a deregulated race to the bottom. "We haven't seen any detail of the environmental standards these ports will be expected to uphold.

"They must not be part of the Brexit race to the bottom in standards and protections or given free reign over planning decisions, which must remain accountable to local communities. "For example, Forth Ports in their submission to the consultation identified a new gas fired power station in Grangemouth as one of their key projects. Clearly, this could hardly be described as 'green'.

"The minister acknowledged that money laundering and illegal activity is associated with freeports, but with powers over our borders in the hands of Tory-run Westminster what protection can we expect that Scotland's waters don't become a haven for illegal activity?" Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart said freeports will play "an important part in the UK's economic recovery, increasing international trade, attracting new investment and creating jobs". He said: "It's great to see so much enthusiasm for freeports in Scotland from ports, local authorities and businesses.

"We want to ensure all parts of the UK benefit from this UK Government initiative, and we welcome the Scottish Government's decision to work with us on it.

"We look forward to bringing the first Freeport to Scotland."

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