"For trading success we must look to the skies"

By Andrew Bell, Chief Executive, Regional and City Airports, owners of Bournemouth, Exeter, Norwich and Coventry Airports, for The Telegraph

As a proud and outward looking island nation, Britain has long been at the forefront of international trade. Our nation’s history is inter-woven with our trading past – from the earliest explorers keen to access new markets for their goods, through to the repeal of the Corn Laws opening up our markets to the world. Indeed, we set the gold standard for what it meant to be a free trading nation, catalysed by the almost total abolition of tariffs under William Gladstone during his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 19th Century. Throughout much of the following century and continuing today, Britain has been able to maintain this reputation as a world leader in free commerce.

While our history is clearly mapped, following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, many view our future as less certain. However, by looking for inspiration in our global free-trading past, and applying it to the modern day, we can ensure that we continue to prosper and thrive. However for this to be realised, we need to look to the skies.

What is clear is that following our departure from the European Union, the UK Government will have the ability to establish its own trade and customs policy. This freedom includes the ability to set tariffs, including different duty rates for certain goods, or in certain areas. Within that there is the option to create ‘free ports’ – where goods entering and exiting a designated zone would not be subject to any tariffs – or if they are – can be offered at a discounted rate. Anywhere can be selected as a free port and Britain’s regional airports offer a compelling case.

Firstly, by designating regional airports as free ports, the Government would enable the easy flow of goods to and from the UK following Brexit and limit any potential negative impact of a new UK/EU customs agreement, or lack thereof. Designating regional airports as free ports offers the simplest and easiest way to ensure a continuous flow of vital goods and trade across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, such a measure would provide a much-welcomed business boost to these airports, many of which currently operate on a marginal basis. It would help to ensure their long-term survival and enable greater investment, even opening up the potential for new passenger routes internally and abroad.

It would also attract new investment into local areas and further the Government’s own goal of addressing the geographical imbalance in economic growth. We have had the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine so why not the Regional Airports Accelerator? We would be happy to talk to Government on how our airports could help.

Free ports are designed to provide key incentives for domestic and foreign companies’ supply chains. With increased trading activity in the port, an agglomerating effect of economic activity in the area surrounding it begins as businesses shift their manufacturing and distribution operations.

And the model already exists – countries all over the world, from the United States, through the Middle Eastern City states, to the free-trading hub of Singapore, have already successfully established free ports. Indeed, there are approximately 3,500 free ports operating worldwide, employing 66 million people across 135 countries.

And the benefits are clear – the US equivalent of Free Ports, namely US Foreign Trade Zones (FTZs), have, according to over a decade of US trade data from 1996–2016, showed an average growth in US trade of 5% p.a. FTZs, by contrast, experienced growth of over 8%. Furthermore, by 2014 the value of exports from FTZs reached $69.9bn, representing an increase of more than 66% since 2009.

The UK currently operates over 160 ports including air, road and sea which account for 75% of all UK trade. Last year, trade between the EU and UK reached £593bn. The UK was the second largest port sector in EU but, as a member of the single market, it was unable to set its own tariffs against the goods entering and exiting its ports. Brexit offers the UK Government the ability to create free ports and unleash their economic potential. According to the Centre for Policy Study’s research on free ports, even applied to just to the UK’s biggest Northern ports, the policy would create 86,000 jobs, provide a much needed boost to the manufacturing sector, as well as boost productivity and wages.

If the free port initiative were applied to regional airports, these effects, already measured for the North, could be expanded to communities across the country. Airports and airlines are seeing an increasing importance in international trade, but there is even greater potential to be realised.

Many have characterised Brexit as looking back to a previous time, a vote to return to a historic Britain. If we are to make a success of Brexit, we do indeed need to look back to our history as an outward-looking trading nation, but we also need to apply these principles to the future – to our globalised world with more and more trade passing through our skies and airports. Brexit provides us with the opportunity to unleash this economic potential, and we should look to the skies to achieve this.