Designated Freeport for NI on way as ‘Boris Bridge’ remains elusive
Councillors in Mid and East Antrim (MEA) have been assured that the UK Government is working to deliver a Freeport – where normal customs and tax arrangements do not apply – for Northern Ireland “as quickly as possible”.
The commitment was made in a letter to council officers from Sir Peter Hendy, who is currently examining proposals to improve road, rail, air and sea links between all four UK regions, and to bring forward funding to accelerate major infrastructure projects.
However, minister of state Robin Walker MP said Prime Minister Boris Johnson was unable to attend an online meeting with the council group to discuss the issue directly.
As well as expressing an interest in the borough being the location for the region’s one designated Freeport, east Antrim is also the most obvious location for the Northern Ireland end of the so-called ‘Boris Bridge’ – at a cost of an estimated £15-£20 billion.
As part of the Union Connectivity Review, two engineering experts have been commissioned to carry out a feasibility and cost evaluation of a fixed link between Scotland and NI. The full report is due before the autumn.
Eight new Freeports in England have already been announced by the government and are expected to be in operation by the end of this year. The Freeports will benefit from simplified customs procedures, duty suspension on goods and a package of tax reliefs.
The local council is part of a North Channel Partnership body, comprised of councillors and officers from the Scottish council that is working with other bodies to progress shared interests such as ports and infrastructure including a long-awaited upgrade of the A75/77 routes in Scotland.
In his letter, Sir Peter Hendy said the government is “working with the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver a Freeport in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible”.
• Boris Johnson has repeatedly talked up the prospect of a fixed link connection between Northern Ireland and Scotland.
As part of the Union Connectivity Review, Sir Peter Hendy will assess the feasibility of a fixed transport link between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and has said he will “focus on the technical viability of such a construction”.
However, the Network Rail chairman will also will explore the “cost, practicality and demand” for a bridge, or tunnel, which some critics have already dismissed as impractical and a waste of money.
As well as criticism from both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, Scotland’s transport secretary Michael Matheson said the Hendy review has been “organised with virtually no consultation”, despite transport being a devolved issue.
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