Holyhead would thrive as a freeport – the Welsh government must act now
Holyhead, as a port, has grown massively over the past 30 years.
Freight volumes in 2020 were around 10 times what they were in the 1990s, with hauliers using the land bridge route from Dublin to Holyhead then overland to east coast ports like Dover for onward passage to continental Europe. The route is faster, cheaper and less prone to weather delay than transporting direct from Ireland to the continent.
It was well anticipated that freight volumes would be temporarily reduced following Brexit. Much had been made of anticipated delays, and contingency plans were put in by many hauliers as well as local and national Government to avoid the problems that many had forecast. These plans included hauliers diverting freight to the longer direct sea routes to avoid “teething troubles” such as documentation errors, IT issues and long border queues.
When you consider also that many businesses stockpiled in December 2020 to avoid potential disruption, the reduction in through-freight in Holyhead at the start of 2021 was not unexpected. The contingency plans that had led to temporary stacking systems being established on the A55 were largely unnecessary.
Since then, volumes have started to increase. They are still lower than this time last year, but we are starting to see large hauliers returning to the land bridge route, comfortable that any major “teething troubles” have by now been resolved.
However, it is how we develop Holyhead and Anglesey going forward that is the bigger issue. The island has suffered for decades from underinvestment and the loss of large local employers. This has resulted in even temporary changes like the recent drop in port volumes having a large local impact.
Holyhead offers a deep harbour with excellent onward connectivity to the rest of the UK and that is why I am so excited about the government’s freeport proposals. In November I initiated the Anglesey Freeport Bidding Consortium – a group of local and regional stakeholders to work on a freeport bid for the whole island because under the new freeport structure, not just Holyhead but zones across Anglesey could benefit from freeport status.
The UK government’s freeport structure is a way to capitalise on the potential of our post-Brexit union. Areas with the lower import and export duties and procedures of freeports will attract new business and investment because the local cost of production will reduce. This is great for stimulating enterprise of all kinds. The proposal we are working on combines Anglesey’s “Energy Island” ambitions with our natural resources and the outstanding innovation, research and development initiatives we have locally.
Moving in this direction would take the emphasis on Holyhead from that of a mere conduit to a hub for exciting development and regeneration across Anglesey. It would dilute local dependence on freight merely travelling through the port and focus it instead on freight that is destined for local manufacture with the added value that will bring to the local supply chain.
The recent Union Connectivity Report highlights road and rail links across north Wales as right for improvement and upgrade, and the government’s levelling up agenda would be well-served by putting a freeport onto Anglesey.
The English freeport bidding process started on 16 November 2020 and closed on 5 February 2021, with the first eight freeports announced at the start of March, but the Welsh Government has not yet opened up the Welsh bidding process and has not announced any plans to do so thus far. With Liverpool just 90 miles up the road granted freeport status this month, the pressure is on to progress the Welsh plans and avoid any further loss to Holyhead.