We ‘seem to have misunderstood the Freeport Opportunity’

Updated – August 31 21:35 – ‘Official’ Solent Freeport map added at bottom of post.

This will be our last word on the ‘opportunity’ given that it appears to have mostly ‘gone west’. (Be warned, this post also strays to the west so if your attention span doesn’t include ‘Southampton’, look away now.)

Earlier this month I wrote to Cllr. Narinder Bains and Cllr. Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Solent Freeport Board members representing Havant and Portsmouth respectively, with a fairly straightforward question:

“… from the information in the public domain, it seems that Havant’s only Freeport interest is at Dunsbury Park, presumably for secure warehousing. Can you confirm whether or not the New Lane manufacturing and warehousing opportunity was reviewed during the bid process?” 

A perfectly fair question given that one of the aims of the Freeport initiative set up by Rishi Sunak and Robert Jenrick was to kick start the regeneration of employment areas in the interests of ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’. The New Lane employment area, once the beating business heart of Havant, is certainly an area that needs some carefully considered regeneration.

While Cllr. Bains came back within a couple of hours confirming that it hadn’t been considered, it seems that Cllr. Vernon-Jackson must have delegated it upwards to the Chairman of the Solent Freeport Board.

Later that evening, the website received the following comment, seemingly in response to a previous article – ‘Solent Freeport – an update‘.

Not wishing to waste the opportunity, our cub reporter wrote straight back:

And for a brief moment, a dialogue sparked into life…

I wrote back to let him know, by way of illustration, that ‘Dunsbury Farm’ is actually dwarfed by the New Lane employment area though, to be honest, by this point there was little point in pursuing the discussion. Havant Borough Council’s track record of visionary thought in regeneration matters isn’t strong and the opportunity clearly hadn’t been considered.

There was, however, another point in his email which caught my attention. The sentence which caught my eye was this one:

“We then had to get the other total area as large as possible and Fawley Waterside has huge potential.”

Now Fawley Waterside is an interesting private development, a sort of ‘Poundbury-on-Solent’-cum-Portmeirion which promises “to build one of the most beautiful small towns in England”. A community of residential properties with high kerb appeal and a bit of commercial activity on the side. But surely unlikely to be the development with the ‘huge potential‘ that the Chairman of the Solent Freeport Board was thinking of?

So I asked him. Was he, perhaps, thinking of Dibden Bay, a little to the north?

A week later, having heard nothing, I politely chased him for a response.

That was three weeks ago now and I’ve given up expecting an answer since the answer is probably obvious.

Given the heavily Southampton-centric nature of the Solent Freeport bid response, a couple of other parties represented on the Solent Freeport Board could probably confirm the answer. Associated British Ports bought the land at Dibden Bay as an obvious speculative investment many years ago and have a clear vision for its use. Solent Gateway now run the former Marchwood Military Port on the land next door. By moving the existing vehicle import/export facility from the West Quay side to Marchwood, ABP would free up more space for the lucrative Cruise terminal. Then by developing Dibden Bay as a sort of ‘Felixtowe-on-Solent’ on that nice greenfield site, they would double the size of the Southampton container port.

So if they own the land, why haven’t they already done it? Well there’s a little matter of the New Forest District Council (another party to the Solent Freeport) and a couple of designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Dr Julian Lewis MP kept a diary of previous invasion attempts on that shoreline and it’s safe to say that while the EU ruled and planning regulations were still considered important, then the SSSI’s were safe. Right now, it’s just another greenfield site, just like Dunsbury Farm once was.

It’s worth taking a look at the detail in section 3 – ‘Planning’ – of the Solent Freeport Bid response.

For all those parties who campaigned against Southampton Port expansion at Dibden Bay in the past, it’s probably time to take stock again. The relaxation of rules pertaining to local development orders and governing permitted development rights in freeport zones opens a whole new can of worms.

Solent Freeport Map

The ‘official’ Solent Freeport map has turned up. Dibden Bay is shown as both a ‘Customs Site’ and ‘ABP Strategic Land Reserve’. The ‘Fawley Waterside Cluster’, which doesn’t appear on the dumbed down version of the map on the Solent Freeport site, links the Fawley Waterside development with the Fawley refinery and chemical works.

For those closer to home, the ‘Portsmouth Gateway Cluster’ might look good on the map, but Dibden Bay is probably where the real Solent Freeport opportunity went.