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‘Managers’ or ‘Leaders’? – Lib Dems and the Plymouth Freeport

‘Managers’ or ‘Leaders’?

Why it’s so important the Liberal Democrats get it right on the Plymouth Freeport

I am often asked to include the ‘positive’ on Freeports ‘for balance’. The problem, as I am forced to point out, is that the only ‘positives’ are from vested interests.

The only organisations that try to justify the ‘positives’ of Freeports are:

  • The UK Government that promotes them;
  • The Freeports’ own ‘business cases’ (containing wildly optimistic projections whilst also heavily redacted due to ‘commercially sensitive’ information);
  • Accountancy firms who stand to benefit from their complex tax arrangement ‘advice’ on the loopholes and tax advantages of relocating into a Freeport.

There are no independent evidence-based sources on which to base a ‘positive’ case.

Being asked to provide ‘balance’ is akin to asking someone to point out the ‘benefits’ of climate change: it is purely an invitation to dig around the dirt of a catastrophe and celebrate the moment a piece of intact debris is plucked from the crash site.

There are, however, plenty of evidence-based articles that demonstrate an overwhelmingly negative and risky reality to the Freeport project.

The Freeport Reality

George Monbiot on the beach
George Monbiot

George Monbiot wrote an excellent article on Freeports back in 2022 which gives a broad overview of the issues.

There are many specific articles and sources on the legitimate concerns around freeports. These range from Issues of deregulation, their ‘easy lure’ for Councils and the mounting evidence of poor value for (public) money. The European Parliament’s report on money laundering and tax evasion (“Freeports are conducive to secrecy…”) and Portsmouth University’s report are good starting points. Environmental risks are also clearly evidenced (as presented to the UK Parliament in this report and in the Freeport Bidding Prospectus particularly Section 3.9). The UK’s most infamous Freeport – Teesside- is now subject to a UK Government inquiry after substantial allegations of corruption.

Other concerns include poor financial return for residents, a lack of evidence base for wildly over-optimistic business case projections and – in the case of South Hams – falling far behind and off track in the first 18 months alone.

But it’s not just that the Plymouth & South Devon (PASD) Freeport is a 25-year money pit that is of concern. The Plymouth Freeport distorts and erodes other local priorities, too. For example, we already have a situation in which Sherford land that was owned by housebuilders is being sold to the Freeport to be developed as a lorry park and warehouse ‘tax site’ with the help of millions of pounds of tax-payers’ cash.

It’s sad that millions can be found to build a ‘tax-lax’ lorry park, but when it comes to quality, affordable housing at scale, a real crisis of need falls to the bottom of the pile. Call me old fashioned, but £3.5 million of public funding could have been better spent instead on our local affordable housing crisis.

Journalism and scrutiny

Government and freeports have been adept at sidestepping the overwhelmingly negative evidence presented against them. South Hams Council – one of three councils to be members of the PASD Freeport structure including Plymouth and Devon County Council- persists with a press and PR campaign that favours spin over facts.

It has taken the pressure of independent journalistic investigations into PASD to force South Hams District Council (SHDC) to acknowledge that concerns really are legitimate.

And as my own personal investigations have progressed, I have become fascinated with the way in which the new Liberal Democrats-led administration at SHDC has dealt (or otherwise) with the issues of the Freeport.

A glimpse of the future?

It has given me an insight into what happens when ideological government policy is foisted on councils – and the political parties of opposition. And perhaps this insight is a taste of what opposition parties may face nationally when they are left to pick up the pieces our current Government looks set to leave behind, post-election.

The UK Government is devolving huge amounts of accountability to cash-strapped councils. Our local authorities are in the midst of a death spiral of crises- including funding, auditing, the shrinking of the state, reorganisation, and an increase in demand linked to over a decade of already damaging cuts.
How our councils – and Councillors- then deal with the fallout of ideological policies forced upon them has profound ramifications locally and nationally.

The political picture from the PPCs

Two months ago, I wrote to South Devon constituency’s prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) who represented parties with a presence at South Hams Council. I wrote to the Green Party PPC, the Liberal Democrats’ PPC and the sitting Conservative MP, Anthony Mangnall. At the time of writing, Labour have not yet fielded a PPC for South Devon, so sadly I cannot include an ‘official’ PPC response from them.

Conservative ‘no-show’

South Devon Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall hasn’t bothered to answer the questions I presented to him about the Freeport (way back in early November). This isn’t the first time Mr Mangnall has ‘opted out’ of specific questions that I have raised with him. It’s hugely disappointing and lets constituents down.

In the case of the Plymouth Freeport, the two most recent Prime Ministers from his own party have been the driving forces behind the project. Mr Mangnall was himself at the uncomfortable Business and Trade Committee meeting on 10th January 2024 that saw Michael Gove dodge questions on Teesside corruption allegations. So it is sad that, at £90,000 a year plus allowances and expenses, Mr Mangnall MP gives constituents like me nothing in return when it comes to answering straightforward, open questions on the subject of the Freeport on his doorstep, as required by the Nolan Principles of Public Life.

However, both Caroline Voaden (Liberal Democrats Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) and Robert Bagnall (Green Party Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) did indeed demonstrate an understanding of the Nolan Principles and the need for clarity. They got back to me with full statements of their position on the Freeport.

The statements from Green Party and Liberal Democrats PPCs:

Liberal Democrats PPC Caroline Voaden was forthright:

My position on the Plymouth & South Devon Freeport is that it is something which we inherited from the previous Conservative-run council….The Liberal Democrats would not have created Freeports. We don’t believe that creating tax havens is the right way to prop up a stagnant economy.” (Caroline Voaden PPC)

Robert Bagnall (Green Party) stressed that his answers reflected his personal views and his interpretation of the Green Party’s policies rather than being an ‘official Green Party spokesperson’. He was largely in agreement with Caroline Voaden- up to a point – writing:

“In fairness, the creation of freeports was an explicit 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge. The failings appear to be in the opposition to the previous Conservative administration in South Hams when commitments were made, the Greens apart, in realising the implications of these proposals and alerting their constituents appropriately.” (Robert Bagnall PPC)

Conservative and Liberal Democrat converts to the Freeport

Mr Bagnall is only partly correct in what he states: some Lib Dems did raise concerns during some tense (and rushed) Freeport Council meetings in 2022. However, as the almost universal ignorance about the Freeport across South Hams residents attest, they failed to alert constituents to the implications of PASD.

Now, under Liberal Democrats leadership, the representative on the Plymouth Freeport board is one of the most prominent South Hams Liberal Democrats of them all – Cllr John Birch. During the South Hams Council Executive meeting of November 30, 2023, Conservative Cllr Nicky Hopwood congratulated Cllr John Birch, the Lib Dems Member on the Freeport Board, on the progress of the Freeport under his guidance: “I am so glad that you have…acknowledged the benefits, I think you are doing a fantastic job in getting up to speed with it… and I am glad we made that decision because we sowed a seed for what I think is going to have massive economic benefit for the South Hams…”

It was quite an eye opener to see a Conservative and one of the lead Liberal Democrats so aligned on what many see as simply a trickle-down economics project. I wonder- perhaps the ‘wrong-side-of-history’ Lib Dems/ Conservative coalition of 2010 is still alive and kicking in South Hams council? Did no-one get the memo that the Clegg/ Cameron years of compromised principles were in fact a disaster for the country?

Freeport risks

Lib Dems PPC Caroline Voaden seems very aware of the risks presented by the Conservative originated Freeport project – in marked contrast to the Lib Dems-led South Hams Council’s overwhelming support:

“As a party [Liberal Democrats] we are concerned that freeports will simply move jobs and investment to different parts of the country, rather than create new ones; that they might lead to costly tax cuts for big business, and that there are risks for illicit economic activity. All of these concerns have been shared by colleagues at SHDC.” (Caroline Voaden PPC)

I have been observing Caroline Voaden’s fellow Liberal Democrats at SHDC (South Hams District Council) closely over the past few months. The majority of the Lib Dems sitting in SHDC seem quite happy to entrust that everything will be fine under their Lib Dems member and Freeport representative Cllr John Birch.

But I wonder how much the Lib Dems PPC really understands what is happening in the Council led by her fellow party representatives. And I wonder if any of them really know what kind of beast they are dealing with when it comes to the Freeport, and advise them to closely read the Freeports Delivery Roadmap (released in December 2023) and this rather telling document – Smarter Regulation to Grow the Economy, published May 2023. It should be a wake-up call on the direction of travel.

Liberal Democrats voices speaking up

Caroline Voaden Liberal Democrat P.P.C.
Caroline Voaden Liberal Democrat P.P.C.

It is some (but small) comfort to be able to report that a tiny minority of Lib Dems Councillors have voiced concerns in and out of Council recently over the Freeport including Liberal Democrats Cllr Denise O’Callaghan (Kingsbridge).

I have listened in Council to Cllr O’Callaghan reflect on how Councillors are accountable to the Nolan principles of public life and that the governing body of the Freeport (a private company) should also adhere to these principles. I have heard her express an uneasiness about the fact that Freeport business rate agreements and other documents were not in the public domain. She has (quite rightly) questioned that if the Freeport boundary around Dartmoor ‘meant nothing’ as the Freeport claims, then surely the boundary line could be dissolved. I have heard her make some strong points, and make them with a clarity and tenacity that has been lacking from other colleagues who make up the majority of South Hams Council, and who seem determined to take the opportunity of Freeport discussions to ‘switch off’. I have been told there are others who share concerns, but I have not myself witnessed this – yet.

It is clear that this willingness to speak out has been rare. In some cases, other Lib Dem Councillors even seem to have lost patience with their colleagues and their ‘pesky Freeport concerns’; at one Council meeting I attended, they drummed their fingers and hands on their desks in eagerness to move on from the ‘tiresome’ subject of the Freeport and any ‘awkward’ questions being raised. I felt sorry for the residents they represented.

The Leader of the Council, Lib Dems Cllr Brazil, has recently remarked about keeping an ‘open mind’ on the Freeport, but realists are aware that with every penny of the £5.5 million that South Hams spends on the Freeport, pulling out becomes increasingly less likely. Has a general Liberal Democrats lack of urgency on the implications of Plymouth Freeport already sold South Hams residents down the river?

Have the Liberal Democrats got what it takes to lead – with principle?

Green Party PPC, Robert Bagnall, described in his statement fears that the Lib Dems approach to the Freeport could be far too compliant:

South Hams District Council appear to be sleepwalking into this…My experience of the Lib Dems—and I say this as an ex-Lib Dem who campaigned for them in the 2019 election—is that they are managers rather than leaders, without a well-defined ideological core. Hence, I am not surprised that they appear to have applied little deep thinking to the issue and have simply fallen for the ‘buy now, pay later’ allure of the Conservatives’ sales pitch.” (Robert Bagnall PPC)

OUCH.

Robert Bagnall
Robert Bagnall Green Party PPC

Robert Bagnall’s quote has echoed round my mind whilst observing a largely supine Lib Dems-led Council roll over and purr on the Freeport these past few months.

Robert Bagnall continued on his theme:

I have no reason to believe the Lib Dems on South Hams District Council are not good people trying to do their best for the people of the South Hams. However, applying the Nolan principles to the Freeports appears challenging. How to uphold ‘selflessness’ when the freeport is not itself in the public interest? How to uphold ‘integrity’ and ‘objectivity’ when senior decision-makers on the PaSDF board are also personal beneficiaries? How to balance ‘accountability’ with the legitimate need for confidentiality created by a neither-fish-nor-fowl arrangement that is neither a simple buying-in of services for the public, an underwriting of the costs of doing business from the public purse, nor the running of a nationalised industry for the benefit of the public?” (Robert Bagnall PPC)

‘Awkward’ Greens

Until heavy scrutiny from local independent journalism began in earnest, it would be no exaggeration to say that it was just the Green Party who have consistently asked any meaningful ‘awkward’ questions about the Freeport in Council. They have been the only party to actively scrutinise and interrogate the scant information provided to them on the Freeport. And when South Hams has failed to provide evidence and documents to their own Councillors, it has been mainly the Green Party who have fought this lack of transparency – and they have done so with a professional and dogged determination. Other Councillors have taken note in meetings. It’s been fascinating to see what happens when leadership springs from the wings, and not from centre stage.

But there has been a flipside: even as recently as November 2023 I witnessed the valid concerns raised by Green Party Cllr Jacqi Hodgson and Green Party Cllr Georgina Allen being disparaged in Council. That disturbed me. But it also instilled a profound respect for anyone in Council who sticks up for their principles and raises legitimate concerns against the prevailing winds of easy expediency.

See no evil, hear no evil

One of the major issues with the Freeport has been the lack of public consultation: South Hams residents were never presented with the full facts or even asked about the Freeport project. Lib Dems PPC, Caroline Voaden, acknowledged this in her statement to me:

As regards public consultation, we are past the point of consulting on whether people want to host a Freeport in South Devon – that decision was made by the Conservative government, the Conservative-led SHDC, the then Conservative led Plymouth City Council and the Conservative-led Devon County Council – with no public consultation.” (Caroline Voaden PPC)

To me, however, this feels like an evasion of responsibility. The way to deal with a lack of public consultation is not to blithely push forward, shoving a hand in the faces of those who were never asked in the first place. A consultation- frank, honest, and without spin- is very much what is needed. Bridges need to be built, transparency needs to be achieved- and this requires genuine consultation with residents.

Caroline Voaden continued:

“When an administration changes hands, the incoming administration always has to manage situations that it wouldn’t have created had it previously been in power. We are going to see that at a national level, too, some time this year.” (Caroline Voaden PPC)

The Lib Dems’ PPC makes a powerful point here, and the implications are frightening. This Conservative government is leaving a devastated country behind it. Gordian knots of eroded public services have been pulled impossibly tight. A toxic cocktail of public/private ‘partnership’ and the weakening of regulators mean that whoever inherits this poisoned chalice at the next General Election could be annihilated by its fumes alone.

The salted earth of the UK will be a monstrous challenge for any incoming MPs: how do you de-activate a million and one bear traps laid across every area of our lives?

Watch out for the bear trap! We said- watch out for the bear trap!

It seems absolutely clear that the whole Freeport experiment is one such multi-million-pound political bear trap of epic proportions. The only way to preserve any integrity and not play directly into this trap is to take a path of absolute honesty with the electorate and residents. And if this honesty is not forthcoming, the current Lib Dems leadership is as much to blame for an unravelling catastrophe as the previous Conservative one who laid its path. And that means both Caroline Voaden Lib Dems PPC, and the Lib Dems leadership at South Hams Council.

The South Hams Conservative administration seems to have done a runner. The last thing we need are ‘managers’ to take their place.

Labour is invisible as Parliamentary candidate selection hasn’t happened yet. So that has left the Green Party fighting with their backs to the wall. Green Party PPC Robert Bagnall made it clear in his statement how high he believes the stakes could be:

“It is not inappropriate for public money to be put at risk, or tax revenue to be foregone, within limits, to achieve aims such as creating jobs or encouraging environmentally-friendly business practices. However, it is questionable whether it is appropriate to do so in the context of swingeing austerity at local government level (I have seen cumulative budget cuts of £700m since 2010 quoted for neighbouring Torbay Council, which overlaps the South Devon parliamentary constituency; I’m sure figures for both SHDC and DCC are commensurate).”  (Robert Bagnall PPC)

Sticking up for residents

If the Green Party can provide credible leadership on this Freeport issue, then we really should thank them – and not diminish their contribution. I’ve been in that Council chamber, and I’ve seen the few brave voices asking sensible, legitimate questions. There is leadership going on in there- and it isn’t yet from the vapid Liberal Democrats Council leadership.

I was struck by how lonely that role of being a challenger in the Council chamber must be, being one of just a handful of voices asking critical, important questions, week in week out, over the course of many months – sticking up for residents.

Isn’t that what Councillors should do?

I’ve seen the pressure applied to shut these few outspoken Councillors down, and I’ve seen how brave and principled Cllrs Hodgson, Allen and the other few questioning voices have been. A small group still clearly believe that the interests of residents take priority over party politics and tax breaks for private equity at a time of unprecedented council crises.

I admire these Councillors who have spoken out when the entire apparatus of the council seems simply to want to ignore them. The Liberal Democrats are now the majority in South Hams Council – but are they able to step up and lead? Can they lead – with principle?

Green Party PPC Robert Bagnall is right: we do need leaders- not managers. At its most basic level, of course, we first just need our public representatives to answer questions fully. And it is a great shame that when it comes to the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport, that is something that neither Lib Dems-led South Hams Council, nor our current MP – Mr Mangnall (Conservatives) – have chosen to do.

Reader’s Note: South Hams Council meetings are all available online on video (although some parts are EXEMPT- for example some ‘commercially sensitive’ Freeport discussions that further illustrate the undemocratic nature of the Freeport project).
Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcOvsKC4CYM&t=1764s for the Executive discussion of the Plymouth & South Devon Freeport held on 30th November and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M39fEZO8SBg for the Full Council Meeting held on 14th December 2023

If you have concerns over how Lib Dems-led South Hams Council is handling the Freeport issue, you can write to the Leader of the Council, Cllr Julian Brazil

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Sue Chubb
Sue Chubb
2 months ago

Please please keep this up; and can’t tell you how much I admire Totnes Pulse for your work on this. Puts every local newspaper to shame. This is the nuts and bolts of UK Freeport Hell; and loocal people everywhere have no idea whats going on, becuase thier media dont inform them.

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