The Solent Freeport puts our focus back on Dibden Bay

In the 2021 March budget, the Solent was shortlisted as the potential site for one of eight Freeports to be set up in the United Kingdom.  The Government’s Freeport ‘Bid Prospectus’ set out the overall scale of a Freeport and demonstrated how the maximum ‘outer boundary’, a 45Km circle, could fit with the geography of local port facilities, regeneration sites, existing storage facilities and the motorway infrastructure that services them.

The Government’s proposed model allows for multiple sites to be designated within the overall Freeport. The model also ensures that businesses looking to invest in Freeports will have increased options available to help them secure an optimal location that works for them, signalling changes to the planning system for ‘Local Development Orders’ and the relaxation of ‘Permitted Development Rights’ within the Freeport outer boundary.

The Solent Freeport will be an area designated by the government where companies associated with the Freeport have distinct tax advantages. Companies that operate within Freeports do not have to pay import taxes on products until they move them outside the outer boundary and into the full UK market. They can avoid paying certain taxes altogether if they bring in goods through the ports and airports to store or manufacture on sites within the boundary before re-exporting them again.

While customs rules and tax rules will occupy business, the subject most likely to affect individual Solent Protection Society members is that of planning.  The relaxation of planning regulations within Freeports are aimed at removing restrictions and delays for development within the new Freeport outer boundary.  In their initial response to the prospectus, the Solent Freeport consortium welcomed the intent to relax regulations but went on to suggest that the process for securing the necessary permissions would remain ‘time intensive and requires skills that many Councils do not possess’, suggesting that the Government improve the process further by imposing ‘strict time limits on the delivery of approvals’. Warning of weaknesses in collaboration between the various local authorities involved, the consortium recommended ‘the establishment of a special Virtual Planning Authority’ to act as a higher level ‘coordinating institution’.

This is a direction which Solent Protection Society believe should be pursued with great caution. There are other controversial projects in the Solent region already proceeding with minimal public consultation under ‘accelerated’ planning approaches, for example the Aquind Interconnector project near Portsmouth and the Southern Water desalination plant proposal at Ashlett Creek. While Southern Water have recently bowed to pressure and stated their intention to shelve their desalination plans, the company’s focus will now likely shift to a water recycling option at one of the waste treatment plants in the Solent area, probably Budds Farm at Havant, no doubt using a similarly accelerated planning approach.

The map above shows, inset, the map that was submitted with the Solent LEP bid.  That map indicates a ‘Portsmouth Gateway Cluster’ of sites to the east, an ‘Airport Cluster’ to the north, but more significantly the ‘Southampton Water Cluster’ which we’ve detailed in the main part of the image.  Three Freeport ‘customs sites’ are shown, with a fourth at Portsmouth. The Southampton sites are ‘DP World’ at the existing Container Port, ‘Marchwood Port’ at the Solent Gateway site and a third described as ‘ABP Strategic Land Reserve’ at Dibden Bay. 

While each of these port areas are also noted as ‘tax sites’ in the Solent LEP proposal, the proposal also includes Freeport tax sites surrounding the Fawley refinery complex and including the Fawley Waterside development at the former Calshot power station.  The Fawley complex is linked to the main port tax sites by a secure corridor running up Southampton Water.

ABP, owners of the Port of Southampton, and Solent Gateway, operators of the former Marchwood Military Port to the north of Dibden Bay, along with DP World are all influential members of the Solent Freeport Board and would be significant beneficiaries of the Freeport changes.  By moving the existing vehicle import/export facility from the West Quay side to Marchwood, ABP would free up more space for the lucrative cruise business. Developing Dibden Bay as a second container port on the western shore, would then enable ABP to double the freight capacity of the Port of Southampton.

This would not be a new proposal, the previous attempt in 2004 having been overturned after a long planning battle in the face of strong local protest.  The Solent Freeport consortium are mindful of this and issued a thinly veiled warning in their bid response. The further deregulation of planning regulations proposed within the Freeport and the extension of permitted development rights accorded to ports would, according to the Solent Freeport team, still not be enough “to act as an incentive to potential investors and allow for the greater freedoms or coordination in higher-level planning required to ensure Freeport success”.

In what can only be seen as a threat to existing environmental protections, the Solent LEP underlined their commercial concern by observing that ‘existing environmental regulations along much of the UK coastline supersede Permitted Development Rights’, and could once more obstruct their development plans.

The aggressive expansion of the Port of Southampton to enable ABP to compete with Freeport competitor Teesport for a place in the top three UK commercial ports by tonnage might be welcome news for shareholders, but if environmental protections are overturned in the process, the collateral damage to the Solent region would be immense.

Solent Protection Society were active in campaigning against the development of a new container port at Dibden Bay in 2004 and we will resist any new attempt to undermine the environmental regulations which protect the shoreline of the Solent.

Related Reading

UK Port Statistics – 2020 – Published July 2021
Dibden Bay planning history – Rt Hon Dr. Julian Lewis MP, New Forest East