Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart appears to undermine SNP freeport claim

THE UK Government has appeared to undermine the SNP’s claim that Scotland’s first freeports would have “very distinctive” green credentials.

Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart said the push for Net Zero carbon touted by the SNP as being special had already been “central” to successful freeport bids in England.

The Milton Keynes MP also mocked the bitter row between the SNP and Scottish Greens over the £52million plan as a “lovers tiff on Valentine’s Day”.

Mr Stewart was speaking after it was confirmed that the SNP is to back two “green freeports” north of the border as part of Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda.

The sites, which will be named in the summer, are designed to boost economic growth by other tax breaks and other incentives to businesses working within them.

Centred around docks, airports or railheads, the freeport zones are up to 45km across.

Aberdeen, Cairnryan, Cromarty, Dundee and Mossend rail terminal are candidates.

Although the SNP initially refused to work with the UK Government on the idea, it has now relented in return for the sites being called “green freeports” north of the border.

The SNP claims fair work and decarbonisation will be central to the scheme, but there is no legal obligation on bidders to run freeports to hit targets or guarantee wage levels.

The SNP’s partners in the Scottish Government remain firmly opposed to freeports, saying they are a “corporate giveaway” and don’t deliver the jobs they promise. 

Green MSP Ross Greer today said that “instead of working with the Tories”, the SNP should have nothing to do with freeports.

READ MORE: Greens attack SNP partners for ‘working with the Tories’ on £52m freeports plan

The issue is excluded from the SNP-Green joint government agreement, which lets the two parties take divergent positions, but the row is a test for the deal nevertheless.

On BBC Radio Scotland this morning, SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes rejected Green claims that freeports were associated with fraud and money laundering, and said the model beiing pursued in Scotland was “very distinctive”.

Asked to explain, she said there were “particular requiremments around fair work and particular requirements around decarbonisation. They are two areas that are distinctive. “They will be required to deliver distinctive decarbonisation plans.”

Stressing the importance of Scotland’s target to reach net zero by 2045, she added: “They [the bidder] will be required to deliver robust decarbonisation plans, with a plan from each bidder demonstrating how they will move to net zero.

“The bidder will not win without that robust decarbonisation plan.”

However, an hour later on the same show, Mr Stewart said decarbonisation was also part of schemes in England, where there are freeports on the Thames, Teeside and Humber.

Bidders south of the border are asked to show how they will “support the delivery of the UK’s Net Zero ambitions”, which have a target date of 2050 instead of 2045.

He said: “What we want the freeports to be is areas of high innovation which by and large are high-end, well paid jobs If you look at the successful bids in England, they’ve had the commitment to Net Zero as a central part of the bids.”

Referring to the Greens and SNP disagreeing over the idea of freeports, he added: “If this is a case of a lovers’ tiff on Valentine’s Day between the Greens and the SNP, I’m afraid that’s not for me to intrude in.”

Asked how he could be sure freeports wouldn’t merely see job relocation, rather than job creation, he said: “If you look at the record, these are additional economic activities, not replacement ones. There’s plwent y of well documented evidence around the world where that has happened. We’re not replicating another model . This is bespoke model for the UK.

“It’s about £25bn of additional economic activity, not displaced economic activity.”

Ms Forbes was also asked what had changed between last year, when the SNP rejected freeports, and now.

She said: “Firstly, that we will have equal say on the decision so we are proceeding on the basis of a partnership of equals.

“Secondly, we will get full, fair funding. The funding for the green freeports has essentially doubled from what it was a few months ago.

“Thirdly, there are decarbonisation plans at the very heart of the green freeport approach.

“And lastly, and most importantly for us, fair work will be embedded at the heart of that.

“These were not at all on offer last year, and we are delighted to have made progress on what were previously our red lines.”

But pressed on what legal oblligations freeport operators would be under, she was unable to say, arguing the application process would be sufficient.

“We’ve agreed with the UK Government that all applicants need to set out how they intend to embed fair work practices, and that includes the real living wage.

“Now the bidding prospectus wil be published in March, so people will see what the objectives are , and whilst obviously bidders will set out themselves how they meet those objectives, because the Scottish Government has equal say, we will be looking at bidders’ commitment on the real living wage, on fair work, and ultimately if a bidder does not adhere to fair work practices, it won’t win.”

Three of the eight freeport sites earmarked for England are already operating.

The two Scottish sites could be operating by spring 2023.

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