CAMPAIGNERS have hit out at a proposal to create a tariff-free port in south Essex as part of proposals to help boost the economy by up to £15bn.

A free port or “free zone” is an area inside a country’s geographic boundary but which is legally considered outside the country for customs purposes.

As a result, goods brought into the free port don’t face import tariffs and are very attractive to businesses which predominantly rely on imported goods.

However, there are currently none in the UK after a law which permitted them expired in 2012.

Obvious contenders for the plan would be the Port of Tilbury, the London Gateway Port, near Corringham, and perhaps even Southend Airport.

But James Vessey-Miller, chair of South East Essex Green Party, thinks the proposals which were set out by councils to help attract businesses to south Essex, could have quite the opposite effect.

He said: “The UK is already responsible for many of the world’s off-shore tax havens, allowing billionaires to shirk their responsibility to society. We should be getting rid of them, not creating more.

“A free port would not benefit the majority of businesses in south Essex, and would create a loophole for the kinds of multinational corporations which are already responsible for poor worker conditions, tax evasion, and the worst of the pollution damaging our environment.”

He also warned: “A free port would see money and jobs leave our towns, and would invite the kinds of businesses we should be looking to close permanently.”

David Barnes, from the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “What we don’t want to see is larger firms in the free port areas avoiding tax. What would be nice instead would be for our smaller businesses to make the most of tax breaks. Many have set up smaller businesses in response to being furloughed or even having lost their jobs after covid-19.”

In February, a ten-week Government consultation was launched on plans to create ten free ports in the UK. It was due to end in April. However, as a result of Covid-19 it was extended to last Monday, July 13. Responses are now being analysed.