Edinburgh Green Freeport bid: Council to tell UK and Scottish governments its support 'not a settled position'
The city council is to tell the UK and Scottish governments that an official letter it sent in support of the bid for a Green Freeport on the Forth was “premature”.
Forth Ports claim the bid, centred on Leith, Grangemouth and Roysth, could generate 50,000 new green jobs and unlock £6 billion of investment. A decision by the two governments is expected before the end of the year.
Councillors had debated the Green Freeport idea in March this year and agreed that further information would have to be presented to council to identify the merits of such status and address any concerns before the council could confirm its support. But instead, the June 20 deadline for the submission of bids fell when there was no available council or committee meeting to consider the finalised letter of support, so officers decided, in consultation with council leader Cammy Day, to support the bid within the parameters of the existing policies of the council.
The letter of support has only now been reported to the council’s policy and sustainability committee and SNP, Lib Dem and Green councillors combined to insist Cllr Day and chief executive Andrew Kerr write to the governments and make clear the council’s official stance will have to be decided by full council.
Paul Lawrence, the council’s director of place, apologised for not ensuring due process was followed. But he said officials felt they were “on reasonably firm ground” because of the alignment between the declared aims of the Green Freeport and existing council policy on matters such as high quality job creation and a just transition to net zero.
And he defended the Green Freeport idea against the argument that much of the expected investment would happen anyway and the Freeport was just “using public money to line private pockets”.
He said: “Forth Ports have invested what I understand has been £50m in the outer berth at Leith as a marshalling yard for offshore renewables. As a direct result of the potential Freeport they are in discussions, including with the Scottish Government, for a large-scale renewables investor who has made it abundantly clear that they would not come if it wasn’t for the Freeport status and the benefits that brings. So the argument that all of this would happen anyway is clearly not the case. I think it is the right thing to bid for, for the economy of the region because otherwise we would just see investments simply going elsewhere where incentives are in place.”
Cllr Day apologised tat due process, as agreed by council in March, had not been followed. “I was new in post but that’s not an excuse, we should have followed the process so I apologise for that. He said he thought there were huge opportunities as well as some downsides. All along my ambition has been to ensure there would be a fair work agenda, good jobs, commitment to living wages and all the conditions we would expect including a unionised workforce.”
SNP group leader Adam McVey noted the Capital was thriving ahead of any Freeport. “Edinburgh is still leading in a host of economic indicators, including inward investment, which Edinburgh is still doing well in.” And he said: “It is important we write to the government to make clear our position is not a settled one, that it was premature.”
Lib Dem councillor Sanne Dijkstra-Downie said: “I think we all pretty much agree it was unacceptable this letter was sent when and in the way that it was, given that there are known differences of opinion on this matter and that it has taken fie months for it to be discussed in committee.” She said the Lib Dem group still worried about whether new investment would truly be additional. “Without that, this Freeport potentially gives large tax beaks to big and in some cases controversial corporations.”
Green councillor Alex Staniforth said: “Our feeling is that Freeports are generally a bad idea. They have beeen tried in the past and their long term benefits just don’t manifest. They may have some brief short-term benefits to an area. But if you sell your city cheaply, which is what Freeports do, you don’t get any benefit in the long run.”
Tory group leader Iain Whyte claimed the row was a “storm in a teacup”. “Here we have a proposal that is expecting to find 50,000 new jobs in the wider Forth area. That may be an exaggeration but it will undoubtedly bring a lot of jobs. The incentives to Leith bring a potential investment of £850m – that’s private investment in and offshore wind hib and marshalling site. Are we really hearing from the SNP, Green and Lib Dem councillors that we’re going to throw this out and fail to support a proposal to bring all of that to Leith? It sounds like madness.”