THE Scottish Greens have openly attacked their SNP partners in government over the creation of two freeports north of the border as part of Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda.
The junior partner at Holyrood said the landmark £52million plan would “hand tax breaks and public money to rich corporations”, despite a lack of evidence that it would boost the economy.
Green MSP Ross Greer said his party would have “nothing to do” with the scheme and said the SNP should do likewise, “instead of working with the Tories”.
The unprecedented spat coincides with a planned visit by the Prime Minister to Scotland today to promote the freeports, which at the SNP’s insistence have been dubbed “green freeports”.
Centred around docks, airports or railway hubs, freeports are designed to encourage economic growth by exempting goods arriving in them from tax and customs charges.
Businesses in freeport zones – which are up to 45km or 28 miles across – can then use this lower-cost material to manufacture goods and export them again without ever paying full tariffs.
The UK freeports are being funded by the Treasury, which will subsidise them with tax breaks, including enhanced capital allowances and lower employer national insurance contributions.
The Scottish Government can also help with business rates and land and building transaction tax.
There already freeports operating on the Thames, Teesside and the Humber.
Potential sites in Scotland include Aberdeen, the Port of Cromarty Firth, Cairnryan, Dundee and Mossend rail terminal in North Lanarkshire which could be linked to Glasgow Airport.
The SNP previously opposed freeports, saying the model had been “tarnished” by association with crime, smuggling, tax dodging, and poor pay and work conditions.
After the UK Government proposed funding eight freeports in England and one each in Wales and Scotland, SNP ministers demanded extra safeguards.
This involved making any Scottish sites “green ports”, with all operators required to adopt fair work practices, including union recognition, the real living wage and no zero hour contracts.
The sites would also have to contribute to Scotland’s pursuit of net zero carbon emissions.
However, after initially refusing to support the freeport scheme, SNP ministers have backed down, and the green ports will operate on essentially the same basis as the freeports south of the border.
Although employers will be encouraged to adopt fair work practices and pay the real living wage, there will be no legal obligation on them to do so.
A Whitehall source said the green port name was merely “cosmetic”, and that there would be a “level playing field” with the freeports in England
Mr Greer, the Scottish Greens’ finance spokesperson, said: “A little greenwashing won’t change the grim reality of these ‘freeports’.
“They are yet another way of handing tax breaks and public money to rich corporations, despite no evidence that it will create real economic prosperity.
“The Greens will have nothing to do with this corporate giveaway.
“Instead of working with the Tories, we’d urge SNP colleagues to collaborate with those of us who want to build an economy which serves, rather than exploits, people and planet.
“They certainly know where to find us and our door is always open.”
Green ports are specifically excluded from the joint government deal struck between the SNP and Greens last year, so the rift will not sink the arrangement.
However today’s announcement is a big early test of its robustness.
The bidding process for the green freeports is due to start in a few weeks.
Applicants, who must pledge to reach Net Zero by 2045, will be jointly evaluated by the Scottish and UK Governments, and could be operational as soon as spring 2023.
The UK Government has committed £52m to support the two sites.
Speaking ahead of his visit to Scotland and north west England, the Prime Minister said: “Freeports will help to accelerate our plan to level up communities across the whole of the United Kingdom.
“They have the power to be truly transformational by creating jobs and investment opportunities to enable people to reach their potential, and I am delighted that people across Scotland will reap the benefits that will come from having two new green freeports.”
SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said she was pleased to have agreed a joint approach recognising “the distinct needs of Scotland” and which enshrined the Scottish Government’s “commitment to achieving net-zero and embedding fair work practices through public investment”.
She said: “The establishment of Green Freeports will help us create new green jobs, deliver a just transition and support our economic transformation.
“We can only seize Scotland’s economic potential if we create secure, sustainable and satisfying jobs that also help build a fairer, more prosperous economy for everyone.
“That is my absolute priority and establishing Green Freeports will be integral to achieving this.”
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said it was a “truly exciting moment” and he was delighted to be working with the Scottish Government on it.
He said: “Green freeports help inject billions into the local economy, while levelling up by creating jobs for local people, and opportunities for people all over the UK to flourish.
“By collaborating using opportunities like green freeports we can work to level up the whole of the UK and bring benefits and opportunities to communities that need it most.”
Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray said: “This agreement was delayed for months because the two governments disagreed over the name.
“As a result of their petty point-scoring, regions in England already have a head start. It’s vital that the Scottish and UK governments put their differences aside.
“We must ensure that workers’ rights are protected within the zones, creating high quality jobs, not undercutting others. If we are to achieve our net zero ambitions, we need to forget the arguments of the past and work together to build a greener and fairer future for everyone.”
Tory MSP Liam Kerr said: “It’s wonderful news that Scotland will soon be home to two new freeports, which will help unlock the economic potential of our ports and kick-start our recovery from the pandemic.
“Months of SNP dithering and delays had cast doubt over whether these projects would ever get the go-ahead.
“But I’m pleased that the SNP Government have finally got behind the scheme and worked with the UK Government to deliver this golden opportunity for Scotland.
“Both of Scotland’s Governments must now work together to ensure we can make the most of this exciting opportunity, and deliver the growth and investment our economy needs.”