Scottish ministers have announced plans to develop “green ports” as an alternative model to the freeports being set up by the UK Government in the wake of Brexit.
Ministers at Westminster hope to establish at least seven freeports in England, with these areas set to benefit from “generous” tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and wider Government support.
Scottish trade minister Ivan McKee claimed there are concerns about criminality, tax evasion and reduced workers’ rights in freeport zones, and this is “not a model or an approach that this Scottish Government will sign up to or allow here in Scotland”.
He said the Scottish Government will instead “adapt” the UK policy, and align it with its values of fair work and developing a lower carbon economy.
Mr McKee told MSPs: “The Scottish Government has developed a proposal which adapts the published UK Government proposition to make them fit for the Scottish context.
“We will take the UK Government’s freeport model and apply Scotland’s values and priorities to it so that it meets our ambition to develop a net-zero economy and uphold the highest standard of environmental protections and fair work practices.
“Scotland will turn freeports into sustainable, fair, green ports. We won’t be engaging with an economic model and mechanism that allows for a race to the bottom.
“Instead the Scottish green port model will be an exemplar, adopting best practice which helps to deliver on net-zero and fair work principles alongside supporting regeneration and innovation ambitions.”
While he said firms located in any new green ports could potentially benefit from some rates reliefs, he added there would be “clear conditions” and “obligations” they would have to meet.
These could include companies having to pay staff the real living wage and sign up to the Scottish Business Pledge, which bars firms from using zero hours contracts and commits them to working to tackle the gender pay gap.
Scottish Conservative economy spokesman Maurice Golden said the green port proposal is a “humiliating climbdown” from the SNP, with the party’s conference having “backed a motion slamming them”.
But he added: “This screeching SNP U-turn is very welcome. It seems they have finally realised that businesses are desperate to reap the benefits from freeports.
“The Scottish Conservatives and UK Government have said for months that the SNP should stop playing politics and start working constructively to take these proposals forward.”
Labour jobs and economy spokesman Alex Rowley welcomed the green port policy, and said his party will “work with the Scottish Government to create them through any possible means”.
While he welcomed the obligation for firms to pay the real living wage, he added: “We need a strong commitment from ministers that they will work with trade unions and provide further guarantees that pursuing free ports will not lead to a race to the bottom on workers’ terms and conditions.
“We cannot allow this programme to be another example of SNP rhetoric on green jobs failing to match the reality.”
Scottish Greens environment spokesman Mark Ruskell said: “Simply calling a free port ‘green’ doesn’t guarantee environmental and workers standards, and presents a real risk of greenwashing a deregulated race to the bottom.
“We haven’t seen any detail of the environmental standards these ports will be expected to uphold. They must not be part of the Brexit race to the bottom in standards and protections or given free reign over planning decisions, which must remain accountable to local communities.”
Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart said: “Freeports will play an important part in the UK’s economic recovery, increasing international trade, attracting new investment and creating jobs in communities right across the UK.
“It’s great to see so much enthusiasm for freeports in Scotland from ports, local authorities and businesses. We want to ensure all parts of the UK benefit from this UK Government initiative, and we welcome the Scottish Government’s decision to work with us on it.
“We look forward to bringing the first freeport to Scotland.”