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Solent Freeport project moves closer after New Forest District Council members greenlight latest phase

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THE flagship Solent Freeport project has moved a step closer after New Forest district councillors backed its progression to the next phase.

Pledging their continued support, 35 members at an extraordinary meeting voted to endorse the freeport full business case and a document setting out the retention and pooling of business rates between the Solent Freeport Company and the government.

The company can now submit its full business case to the government by the 15th April deadline.

Cllr Jill Cleary
Cllr Jill Cleary

As previously reported in the A&T, supporters claim the Solent Freeport – a reduced tax and regulation zone – could attract £2bn of investment and over 56,000 jobs to the region.

It will bring tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and a streamlined planning processes to promote regeneration and innovation.

The government has confirmed it will give the project £25m seed-funding – including £4.6m for site costs and infrastructure for Fawley Waterside and £4.4m for site remediation at Marchwood Port.

Hailing the news, NFDC deputy leader Cllr Jill Cleary said: "Our focus is on realising those local benefits, and we are working with the colleges and other partners to connect local people with the opportunities the Solent Freeport will bring.

"This will give greater opportunities to our residents and young people to access sustainable employment, apprenticeships, work placements and training."

The Solent site is one of eight freeports chosen by the government as part of its levelling up agenda.

Within the zone are sites including Marchwood and Fawley oil refinery, as well as parts of Southampton, its airport, and a site in Havant.

A report to NFDC councillors stated the New Forest could be in line to get enormous benefits, including nearly 22,000 direct jobs and another 21,000 or so indirect ones.

Meanwhile, the estimated business rates revenue solely in the district was calculated at around £292m of the predicted £511m total the 25-year plan will generate.

NFDC’s executive head of financial and corporate services, Alan Bethune, speculated the New Forest could be granted up to 10% – potentially up to £50m – of that figure.

However, the numbers were branded "ambitious" by critical Liberal Democrat members, who reiterated concerns the freeport will encourage the previously refused Dibden Bay development, host money launderers, and displace local businesses. They also argued local infrastructure will not be able to cope.

"Imagine being a business undercut by a tax haven business paying no business rates and not paying taxes like all the other companies established in this area," said Cllr David Harrison.

Cabinet colleagues were generally supportive; Cllr Jeremy Heron said it was a "real once in a life-time opportunity" and Cllr Michael Harris pledged there would be "checks and balances to look after the amazing place in which we live".

Cllr Joshua Kidd told members to "embrace" the "change going to happen", while Cllr Michael Thierry urged colleagues to "take a leap of faith".

However, Cllr Maureen Holding was concerned the document was "business" orientated. District councillors were "put here" to help constituents and protect the district and its "beauty", she said, adding: "If we lose that we lose the crown jewels."

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