Kate Willard OBE is the Thames Estuary Envoy & Chair at the Thames Estuary Growth Board. This is a sponsored post by Thames Freeport.
The Thames Estuary is brimming with untapped potential.
In 2018, the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission recognised that in its ground-breaking report, concluding this place could contribute £115 billion to the national economy by 2050 and 1.5 million new jobs if fulfilled.
That’s our challenge now. As the Government-backed Thames Estuary Envoy, I lead a private/public board charged with delivering an ambitious, transformative plan to evolve this region of blurred edges comprising north Kent, south Essex, east London and the river itself, by turbo-charging growth.
Called “The Green Blue” – our blueprint begins to realise the enormous potential of the Thames Estuary by stimulating, endorsing and enabling a substantial range of infrastructural, technological, environmental and cultural projects.
Everything from enhanced transport hubs, river crossings, roads, rail, ports and airports to super-fast digital infrastructure, innovative business parks and a world-class theme park. All backed-up with strategies around skills, employment and housing so people can genuinely access emerging opportunities, and with emphasis on “good green growth”.
Our exceptional private/public growth board is working to leverage significant amounts of private sector investment and make the Estuary the most compelling investment proposition in the world. Each board member is brilliant: possessing a high level of expertise in their area. They are at the razor-sharp, cutting edge of business and high-calibre place leaders, and all are crystal clear about the Thames Estuary we want to create.
Securing a freeport for the Thames is crucial to us. Our plans hinge upon the advantages, benefits and opportunities that freeport status would unlock.
We have played a role in shaping the bid by making it clear to bidding partners the outcomes we needed from a Thames Freeport. We called these our “principles” and set out our requirements under six thematic areas; economic, investment, innovation, environment, regeneration and community. The bid is progressing strongly against all of them.
The last one of our principles is the most important to us.
The Estuary is one of the poorest and most deprived areas in the UK; a situation exacerbated by the pandemic and Brexit uncertainty. The east London borough of Barking and Dagenham itself is ranked in the top five local authorities for deprivation. Its unemployment rate is 74 per cent higher than the national average – one of the highest rates in the country. Thurrock’s unemployment rate is above the national average. It is among the country’s top 25 most skills-deprived areas and the neighbourhoods surrounding Tilbury are among the top 10 per cent of overall deprivation.
Getting a freeport is an essential part of the Estuary’s recovery and will help it to level-up. A freeport would be a major shot-in-the-arm for communities along the river, unlocking £400 million of port investment in deprived areas and creating more than 25,000 well-paid jobs, with significant investment in up-skilling opportunities ultimately boosting ravaged local economies. A skills-accelerator programme would bring local education providers and employers together to ensure local people can capitalise on new career opportunities.
DP World, Forth Ports, Ford Dagenham and Thames Enterprise Park will deliver a pioneering world-class freeport, which will be a magnet for inward investment. No other port cluster in the south of England has the global connectivity and capacity to substantially expand its operational area. The zone will be a catalyst for commerce, creativity and prosperity unrivalled by other regions in the UK.
The environment is at the front-and-centre of our plans. We want to create the greenest estuary on the planet. A Thames Freeport will support that ambition through investment in clean energy generation, including hydrogen fuel production, storage and fuelling infrastructure. Ford plans to trial new and green technology initiatives at its Dagenham site. This will further support local and national net-zero targets.
We want to take freight off the region’s roads and shift it to the river. Securing freeport status would be a positive step in that direction. The freeport will link sites along the Thames Estuary by river into the Capital via operational wharves. This will reduce the time and cost of transporting goods, alleviating road congestion and reducing pollution along the A13 corridor.
The Estuary has excellent links into central London and major European cities and vast swathes of riverside and brownfield sites, many with planning consents in place, shovel-ready for building on. As the UK looks outward for new trading partners and brokers deals with other countries, the Estuary is ready to play its part. We have everything an international business needs to set-up base in, or close to, our global capital city. Those advantages would be significantly boosted by freeport status. It would make us the most attractive investment prospect anywhere on these islands.
We’re confident our world-class bidding partners have an irresistible pitch. The Government is cognisant of the wide-ranging advantages of this place to its global trading ambitions. It must act now to capitalise by backing the Thames Freeport bid.