Freeports are effective as convenors of place-based R&D – but that doesn’t mean they are necessary

Freeports are one of the government's flagship place-based economic policies. James Coe investigates lessons from the ways that universities have got involved

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

Freeports are interesting in their own terms but they tell us something about how universities become involved (and in some cases not involved) in place based research projects.

Some R&D happens because universities have people who are experts in a field, and they work with others to pursue their research agenda. And some R&D happens by virtue of where a university is based.

On the stuff that universities do themselves and with other people universities have a high degree of autonomy. Researchers can choose what they research and universities can choose who they work with or what they fund. There are place-based programmes that universities initiate. These involve negotiation between partners, funders, agencies, and so on, but broadly universities or a consortium of universities will drive the underpinning research of the programme. Something like the Pandemic Institute in Liverpool only exists due to the research strengths of Liverpool’s universities but it is reliant on civic partners.

And there are the place-based policies that universities do not initiate. These are those interventions where the government decides to set up a special economic zone, try to set up a cluster, and swoop in from high to bestow some incentives on a place. The ways in which universities get on board with, shape, or drive these initiatives, is much less clear cut than some other kinds of civic research partnerships, and when it comes to place based R&D policy freeports are the biggest and most controversial announcement of this iteration of the Conservative government.


The House of Commons Business and Trade Committee has said in a recent report on the performance of investment zones and freeports that “the transparency and governance of freeports and investment zones must be urgently improved.”

Freeports, generally, are poorly understood. They are basically special economic zones which encourage people to set up businesses through a mixture of tax-relief, capital incentives, and other sweeteners. Academic enquiry into their effectiveness – such as this study from the UK Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex – tends to be sceptical of their value to the economy.

They are not only an opportunity for universities but they are a problem too. Their benefits to universities will sometimes only be small, perhaps a few projects, a few incentives, or something else, but to not be part of them looks like a university is not being a team player to one of the few devolved R&D initiatives. At the time they were announced I argued that while freeports are not an economic panacea to deliver levelling up universities should not overlook the opportunity to attract new investment, develop new collaborations, and work with local leaders in shaping R&D projects.

We’ve done a big trawl of the latest goings on with universities and their freeports and it turns out a lot is going on.

In total, there are eight universities with freeports attached to them. As Teesside is the flagship freeport it’s unsurprising to see Teesside University doing so much in and around it. There are links between the freeports and new net zero infrastructure, links between digital innovation, trade, and the freeport, and collaborative projects on low-carbon investments.

Teesside University is not alone in this work. The University of Plymouth is turning its maritime expertise to the efficiency of the Thames Freeport. The University of Essex pledged to use its expertise in innovation and skills to make the most of the “incredible opportunity for the Eastern region to take hold of new economic opportunities.” The University of Hull and the University of Lincoln have announced a freeport collaboration focused on “regional opportunities relating to sustainability, energy, innovation, and business support.” Further afield the initial Solent Freeport innovation strategy lists universities in the area as providing business advice, furthering innovation, and engaging with a range of sustainability projects.

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Where there is a freeport there is university engagement and where there is university engagement it tends to be around sustainability, innovation, and business development, but this work tells us something about place based innovation more broadly.

The lesson of freeports is not necessarily one of the ways in which their incentives, structures, or benefits are driving activity. In looking at their work there is of course a lot of good will but the actual work taking place is more material than a sceptic might anticipate.

The lesson of freeports is that they are a convenor of partners. It’s not they are particularly good, bad, economical, or useful, but that they provide a single focus because civic authorities and their partners are determined to make them work. This then means that as good civic partners universities also try to make sure they work.

This is potentially why the contribution of universities comes in two forms. Broadly speaking, the first is that there is a range of research taking place because of the geography of the freeports. They are located near water (albeit not always completely but that is a story for another blog) and often in areas of heavy industry. Therefore, it is no surprise to see universities cluster their sustainability expertise within the pincers of decarbonisation of industry and sustainable transformation.

The second is that work on business, innovation, and skills, has emerged because the economic rationale of the freeports only stack up if these things are a success otherwise they would simply displace existing work. Effectively, because of the risks of moving economic activity the freeport has forced partners to consider how they make the wider economy bigger through using the freeport as a catalyst.

The economics of freeports are dubious but evidence suggests they can crowd in enthusiasm and activity. The lessons for the future is that in providing a single focus, single project, and a shared expectation that a range of partners will be involved, it is possible to catalyse activity.

The missed opportunity is that it did not have to be a freeport that spurred this wave of enthusiasm. A research landscape which allows mayors and their equivalents to allocate more R&D funding would allow for more specific programmes appropriate for their places. If it is a freeport or nothing it is unsurprising to see many places opt for a freeport.

The challenge for universities is whether this work is additional, repackaged, or almost obligatory as part of a civic commitment. Rather than being given a central government programme to make a success the future could instead be in convening partners to design their own place based programmes.

James would like to extend his thanks to the two Wonkhe interns Yuqi Wei and Naiqian Chen who assisted with the research underpinning this article.

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