Britain has always been a maritime nation. But for decades, our coastal communities have been ignored.
Now, in the wake of Brexit, it’s high time we invested in these areas — and the government’s announcement that it is beginning a consultation on 10 free ports is a major step towards realising the potential of these communities.
Seafaring is a part of our national identity. But for much of the twentieth century, our maritime sector has suffered. We’ve seen shipyards close and rising competition from the far east, while the coastal towns and cities that once flourished have been damaged as the new industries they were promised failed to materialise.
The rest of the country moved forward, but these areas were left behind. Nor is the trend improving. The “coastal community wage gap” widened in 2018: average employee annual pay was £4,700 lower than in the rest of Britain, up from £3,200 in 2017.
The financial crisis also hit coastal communities hard: Britain’s coastal economy grew by 7.5 per cent between 2010 and 2017, compared to the rest of the country’s economic growth at 17.1 per cent. The gap between the coast and other parts of the UK is greater now than it was before the crisis.
It’s small wonder, then, that so many people in these communities voted Leave in the EU Referendum. Many followed this with their first ever vote for a Conservative government in December. In doing so, they gave the Prime Minister a historic mandate to “level up” the parts of the country that have fallen behind, and this has put renewed focus on our maritime sector.
Just as the sector was responsible for our past successes, so too can it navigate our island nation to a bright new future today.
Maritime has a unique capacity to drive economic growth across all parts of the country, and this consultation on free ports is the first step.
These special economic zones will drive investment to left-behind communities, while new tax incentives and pro-business rules will allow our ports to invest more of their own money quicker. The measures that drove growth in the Docklands and on Merseyside can do the same elsewhere.
Now, the government must plan ahead. This starts with investing in infrastructure to support the increased development around existing ports. To realise the benefits of free ports, these growing hubs of economic activity must be connected to population and distribution centres across the UK.
But free ports are just the beginning. The government could recognise the UK’s expertise in shipbuilding and commit to building the Royal Navy’s new support ships here, rather than running an international competition. Other countries, including France and Germany, do this and enjoy the benefits.
And with the so-called “blue economy” set to double in size to $3 trillion by 2030, investing in our ocean industries can help develop the whole country, rather than simply shift economic activity from one part to another.
Maritime is economically effective, but it’s environmentally sound, too — it’s already the lowest-carbon way of transporting goods. So let’s move goods off road and rail to coastal and inland waterways, and put green technology at the heart of our coastal regeneration. We can make major progress towards the zero-emission future that the Prime Minister wants.
It’s time to exploit our coastline and our rich maritime tradition to chart a course into a bright new future.
By restoring our coastal communities, the government can show the nation its refusal to leave anyone behind. And it can show the world and all the doubters our continued commitment to free trade and internationalism.
Main image credit: Getty