Council officers had been working on the joint submission with Belfast Council, Foyle Port and Belfast Harbour.
Stephen Gillespie, Director of Business and Culture, brought forward the draft report on Northern Ireland Innovation Zones telling elected representatives ‘this is about investment and a potential opportunity’.
The UK government launched a Freeport competition in England in November 2021 and subsequently eight ports were selected. Scotland (February 22) and Wales (May 22) have now agreed the terms of the Freeport competition to be run, however, these competitions, in particular Scotland, are different from those agreed in England. As yet the terms of any competition for Northern Ireland have not been agreed.
Sinn Fein Councillor Conor Heaney said he welcomed the fact that the ‘we are moving away from the terminology of Freeports’. He said: “Our party would have real concerns around the Tory inspired Freeport model that was rolled out in England.”
He raised concerns around issues elsewhere with “tax havens and there’s issues with workers’ rights and there’s a range of concerns for us to go down that particular road”.
He said: “If we are crafting a bespoke model for here that eliminates the issues I’ve mentioned then that’s something we would be happy to look at and agree that council officers should continue to work on a proposal. It’s my understanding that Belfast have moved away or are in the process of moving away from this particular initiative so if that is the case what impact does that have on what council officers are currently working on and what are we proposing to put forward in its place?”
Mr Gillespie responded: “In terms of Belfast, they have been very clear they will not be pursuing this any further so our natural partners are Foyle Port. This is an opportunity for us to shape what we want for this region and working with our partner Foyle port.
“The issues around workers rights and tax havens were very well articulated previously and they were part of the submission and part of what we’re working on to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin commented: “The report says Innovation Zone but it’s still a Freeport because the initiative is coming from the Tories who are pushing these Freeports on these islands and across the world as well.”
Understanding the concerns of previous speakers, SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney emphasised the fact that an Innovation Zone could present massive opportunities to the city and district.
“I think Councillor Heaney made a very important point that the title of this report is Innovation Zone, it is no longer talking about a Freeport and I think we have the opportunity to design something that works for us here in Derry City and Strabane where we can incorporate all the concerns people have around workers’ rights issues, around all of the taxation,” he said.
“If we are serious about economic growth in this city and district then we have to investigate it to get every possible opportunity that comes our way and this, whilst it has some concerns, it is at this moment a possible opportunity to create economic growth in this council district.
“I also think there is a massive area around Foyle Port including around the airport and other subsequent lands where we could actually make a real go of something if we are creative enough to think outside the box. I suppose it’s all hinging on whether a competition actually opens or not so we are happy to support the recommendations.”
UUP Alderman Ryan McCready, a member of the port commissioners, spoke of his support for the Freeport model. He said: “Whether that is called an Innovation Zone or a Free Enterprise Zone the title is largely irrelevant, it’s the detail of the model which in actuality will remove some of the concerns or enhance some of the economic opportunities which we have never had here before. My concern is more with the local authority and our members. If we do not endorse or support an appropriate model, an Innovation Zone for our region, this goes beyond our council area.
“This is the north west region, cross border including neighbouring councils within Northern Ireland and further afield into the Republic. This is massive, the magnitude of this hasn’t been acknowledged when we have discussed this in chamber. I’ve seen the details and I’ve seen the opportunity we should take.
“We have an opportunity for a bespoke model for us, designed how we want, tease out the issues we don’t want and bring in the opportunities we do want, that’s there on a plate for us, we just need to take it.”
Welcoming the report, DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney added: “I do take on concerns from others talking about tax havens and workers’ rights and I do believe Councillor Tierney got it right when he said we need to maximise every opportunity and I think if we don’t try to maximise this opportunity it will be a lost opportunity for us in the north west.”
UUP Alderman Derek Hussey reminded members that they needed to be ‘mindful of the actual recommendation which is to explore the opportunity and what will develop out of it will be a bespoke solution to what’s desired and all of the concerns that have been raised by others in the debate can be addressed within such a bespoke solution and application in the subsequent submission’.
Concluding the debate, council Chief Executive addresses the chamber saying: “This is not a Freeport model. A Freeport model will not work in Northern Ireland because of the current circumstances here and that’s why there isn’t a competition open. That’s why we are not in a position where there is a current live bid process.
“Our understanding is that the Treasury would like to see something come from Northern Ireland that is bespoke, hence our reach out to Belfast to make sure we didn’t get into a competition with them and so as we move forward with this proposal, where we are moving forward ourselves, we are further able to tweak the model to ensure that it’s got great local benefit and characteristics that are the decision of this chamber and its stakeholders.”
By Gillian Anderson
Local Democracy Reporter