Blog: Freeports - the sum of all our strengths

This is a guest article by Connected Places Catapult, Associate Members of Maritime UK and Gold Sponsors for Maritime UK Week 2022.

Competition is good; but cooperation and collaboration can be a whole lot more powerful. This is the concept that underpins the Freeports Innovation Network which was launched during Maritime UK Week 2022.

The ‘Innovation in Freeports – Driving investment through freeport innovation’ event, held jointly by Connected Places Catapult, Innovate UK KTN and Maritime UK, delivered some powerful messages, and sparked a valuable dialogue between freeport regions across the UK.

Connected Places Catapult is the Government’s innovation accelerator for cities, transport and place leadership.  Core to our work in the maritime sector is the understanding of the fundamental role that the maritime business ecosystem has to play in regenerating coastal communities. These are the communities and regions that need levelling up because of deindustrialisation, offshoring and many years of feeling neglected.

It is extraordinary that there are places on the Solent, in Liverpool, on the Tees or on the Thames that haven’t had maritime at the front and centre of their economic plans. As a country, we seem to have lost our connection with the industry.

We must recognise the opportunity for economic regeneration in regions, driven by the regions themselves, building on the maritime ecosystem. Maritime UK Week really showcased that point, all across the UK, and we were proud and excited to be the main sponsor for that reason.

Where do Freeports fit into the picture? I believe they present a unique lever to accelerate and drive the economic mission. The campaign to grow UK plc and the national economy needs to start ‘at home’, by which I mean in regions which understand their strengths, appreciate that what they have is unique, focus on how maritime fits into the picture, and work together to deliver results.

Many regions are getting better at understanding the maritime sector and the role that Freeports can play, together. Yes, competition is good – but if all the Freeport regions end up competing with each other for access to the same global investment pot, we are all likely to lose. The risk of displacement is huge – if a business and its employment opportunities simply shifts from one area to another, what is the gain?

The ‘Innovation in Freeports’ event brought together leaders from across UK Freeports and the wider ecosystem. It was designed to facilitate discussion, coordination and collaboration across the Freeport regions so we can learn from each other and work together to address the challenges. Rather than fighting each other, let’s grow the collective size of the opportunity – that way, we are all better off.

What does this mean in practice? Remember, this is a regional regeneration issue. The Freeports need to be clear about what they want to attract in terms of the future economy and high-productivity jobs.

It’s vital that Freeports are driven by Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and new money, rather than sucking in money from the deprived communities around them because of beneficial tax arrangements.

It makes little sense to have eight hydrogen hubs around the coast all competing for FDI. However, if one region focuses on cleaner maritime engines, another on digital processing and data science and another on maritime autonomy, the pieces fit together and we can say: if you want the future of maritime, come to the UK.

There are so many components and disciplines that will be required in the drive for hydrogen technology, from data skills, sensors and systems integration to engineering, infrastructure, financial systems, insurance, legal and regulatory, and no one region can do it all. Regions need to focus on their strengths and work closely with those that have complementary strengths to create an excellent collaborative framework.

All those involved must also recognise that innovation is not about how much you are spending on R&D, but rather about the economic impacts of your spend on R&D, in terms of exploitation and commercialisation. If that connection isn’t made, you can end up having discussions about innovation and investment in separate rooms, when they really should be the same conversation.

Freeports need to consider: what is the investment we are after and how do we mobilise our innovation assets – academic, testing, businesses, test sites, and so on, that help us to meet our investment targets? Otherwise, you end up with R&D strands in one direction and investment taking the path of least resistance. That is where you get displacement of jobs, when it should be about creating new ones.

Taking Hull as an example, one of the UK’s biggest ports; Hull only exists because of its maritime activity. And yet when you speak to most people in the city, it is not part of their identity. There are huge skills shortages in the sector and high-paid jobs on offer, and yet people don’t connect with or know about the opportunities. They are more likely to seek work at a digital advertising company in London. Autonomy, big data, predictive analytics are all taking place right now in the maritime industry – it is just not visible to them.

If we are to make the most of the regeneration opportunities from Freeports and maritime, we must identify the gaps in the market, create the solutions together, drive increased investment and focus strongly on skills development and retention in the regions. Why should students with digital skills automatically move to London or Manchester when looking for a job? If we have these industries on our doorstep, that is a huge part of developing and retaining future STEM skills.

It’s often said that you only notice something when it breaks. Certainly, Covid-19 broke global supply chains and the Ever Green’s extended stay in the Suez Canal reinforced the sense of how fragile the network is. The maritime industry forms the backbone of our global trade system and people do have a better understanding of it. Whichever way you point yourself in maritime, you find a global challenge for a global market. It is up to us to pick up the challenge.