Westminster’s obsession with Freeports highlights the sickness in our body politic

Liverpool: freeport of the future? Image: Getty.

There is a deep sickness in Westminster that, as we approach Brexit, infects everything. It extends beyond our ludicrous politicians, outwards into the nexus of ideas shared and valorised by politicians, think tanks and lobbyists that grease the wheels of the legislative machine, and threatens every interstice of our national life.

Nowhere is the sickness more evident than in Westminster’s current fetishisation of “Freeports”. This policy wheeze is virtually guaranteed to do none of the things its supporters claim, while causing incalculable harm. And yet it is currently championed by breathless politicians on all sides who are so blinded by events that they apparently can know no better.

Freeports are, essentially, seaside local low tax zones. Goods in freeports are considered to be “in transit”, so do not attract regular import and export duties. This, its champions suggest, brings vital support to a local area’s manufacturing industries, which results in activity, jobs and inward investment.

We are not short of examples; some 3,000 such free trade zones exist worldwide. Most house manufacturers who avoid tax on imported raw materials before exporting finished products. They are also exploited by some of the most shameless spivs in the international art market. Collectors and fencers of Picassos and Hockneys avoiding taxes on purchases by warehousing culture and stockpiling heritage. The Economist suggests that “hundreds of billions of dollars” of goods are stored in such to avoid tax. The famous Geneva freeport in particular is a hive of the lurid and the crass, the unequal and the downright criminal. As a vision for our localities this is bad enough, the closest thing to Tony Blair’s disastrous supercasino plan, which assumed that the way to build our regions is to turn local people into factotums for the feckless and the sozzled.

But a cursory glance at the material shows that the purported benefits of Freeports are based on the most tendentious of data. The right wing Centre for Policy Studies, in a report headed up by the Conservative party’s Rishi Sunak MP, claim that by creating freeport areas in our major port cities in the north we can create 86,000 extra jobs. MACE, a construction consultancy, goes even higher, estimating an enormous 150,000 high value (with an income of more than £60,000) jobs from an extra £12bn a year in revenue to the UK Economy. Policy North, another right wing think tank, estimated that the creation of a necklace of Northern freeports will see 612,000 jobs and £12bn of investment.

Such estimates are farcical. Policy North references numbers from a study by a McMaster University study, which make it clear that it has no evidence to suggest that any of the jobs in question were created by the Freeport. Indeed this report in turn references a study by the International Trade Commission that “determined that FTZs [Free Trade Zones] were having a small overall effect on U.S. revenue collection, employment and the economy in general”.

The Centre for Policy Studies’ analysis fares no better: Sunak’s report is cocktail napkin mathematics. He produces his figure of 86,000 jobs by simply dividing the number of jobs in FTZs in America by the size of the national workforce, and multiplying it by the size of the relevant workforce.

Simultaneously, a report recently published by the World Bank was scathing about the potential of Freeports to improve lives or livelihoods. First, it suggested, Freeports do not catalyse economic development. In fact, on average, most zones’ performance only resembles the national average. Secondly, growth in Freeport areas happens early on in the life of the Freeport. After an initial boost, the economic performance of these zones evens out to that of their surrounding area. Thirdly, the economic spillover from whatever benefits there may be – unconvincing as they are – from freeports only appears to affect the immediate vicinity. “The effect declines sharply beyond 20km and is barely evident beyond 50km from the center of the zone.” Witness Delaware in the United State, which opened a freeport in 2015. The unemployment rate has indeed decreased but only at the national rate since opening. Further, unemployment in Delaware has remained consistently above the national average.

There is an appropriate worry that Freeports are not conducive to quality jobs; that what is on offer to many are low security, low wage, low job quality roles. The World Bank in another report on free trade zones highlight that “union rights have been legally constrained or de facto discouraged [in FTZs]”. The International Labour Organization pulls a similar line from their report, that, “The generous incentives and low costs to entry attracts simple processing industries to invest in the zones; such companies often lack professional management, particularly in human resources and management”.


Professor John Tomaney of University College London is an outspoken critic: “Freeports have become an article of faith for some advocates of “Global Britain”. But the evidence that they would contribute to economic development in northern England is very far from convincing. Experience from elsewhere in the world is that they provide many advantages to firms and their shareholders, but far fewer to local workers and taxpayers. In many parts of the world they have been used as cover to drive down labour standards and reduce environmental protections.”

Supporters of freeports claim both precedent and huge public support. Conservative right wingers find themselves in rare alliance on the matter with centre-grounders like former chief advisor to the Prime Minister, Nick Timothy, who suggested that Freeports should be a limb of the free trade alternative to her Brexit deal. They also point to a recent poll done by Survation which shows 83 per cent of British People support freeports. Once again, the quality of that poll calls into account the self-awareness or bona fides of those quoting it. Freeports were specifically claimed to “encourage domestic manufacturing, increased international trade and job creation”. This, as we have seen, is far from proven. At the very least we must debate the countervailing views.

It is a sign of our desperate and ailing times that such an intellectually and ethically troubling idea, presented in such a ham-fisted way, can achieve almost mythical powers of national healing and restoration quite so quickly. It is worth noting that the above is not some academic discussion; the Treasury in October under the direction of Robert Jenrick MP, initiated a consultation into establishing Freeports across the North. Perhaps we should not be surprised that, in a time of ubiquitous division, anything that on the face of it brings together left and right, social justice warrior and free market fanatic, is seized upon, as a rare, magical object of consensus. The reality is, though, that we are wise to this. Just because those in power agree something is a good idea for the rest of us, it doesn’t make it so: the opposite in fact may well be true. The dignity of our people, for the men with pens, often seems to be expendable.

There are alternatives to this dystopia. Economic models based, not on inwards investment, but building local assets, investing in local institutions, creating local employee owned movements. The inward investment model has a rival in the community wealth movements that find expression in places like Preston and in the work in Chicago of Ted Howard and others and that form a real model of local ownership and hope: an economics of belonging, that if applied might get us out of this mess. But the freeport model and it associated degradation and corruption is where Westminster is at right now. What cure can suffice when the rot runs this deep?

Asheem Singh is the director of economics at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. He was assisted in researching this article by Toby Murray.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.