The River Tees has long been the cornerstone of the region’s industry and productivity. But, as Julia Breen discovers, it could also be the key to the future prosperity of the region.

THE winding Tees, which meanders around Stockton and Yarm, has seen a succession of different ports in its history.

Its most prosperous port in the 13th century was at Yarm, where sailing shops docked with cargoes of wine and other goods.

The port later moved downstream to Stockton, where coal was exported, and later, as iron ore deposits in the moors formed the basis of the steel industry, the port utilised the deep water of the estuary in Middlesbrough heading out to South Gare, and Teesport in its current form was born.

The port, now the third largest in the UK, has seen its fortunes fluctuate, aligned to those of the region’s economy. But now it could once more provide the key to the future of industry – and employment - in the area, with an estimated initial 32,000 jobs in the pipeline.

The current government plans to create a series of ‘freeports’ – a special zone, outside of the UK custom border, which offers competitive tax breaks and cuts down on bureaucracy.

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has been an advocate of freeports and there are already advanced plans for one on the Tees, which it is hoped, long-term, could bring more than 90,000 direct and indirect jobs and £5.5bn of extra gross domestic product, to a region crying out for more employment.

Businessiq:

“The ports on the Tees played a crucial role in this nation’s historic trading past and they are key to our great trading future,” he says. “Creating a freeport on the Tees will give global investors looking to establish a significant manufacturing capacity, within a region that embraces industry, a further reason to locate in the Tees Valley.

“At a freeport, goods will be able to come into the UK, be turned into finished products by our talented entrepreneurs and engineers and exported back onto the global market, without much of the needless bureaucracy that holds back free enterprise.

"Creating a freeport right here would turbocharge jobs and growth, bringing investment into the region and making us a global hub of enterprise and innovation."

Jerry Hopkinson, the chief operating officer of PD Ports, says the port has the capacity to handle up to 80 or 90 million tonnes, almost three times its current volume. At its height with steel slab being exported to Corus, the port was handling 55m tonnes.

He said the idea began with a discussion with Richmond MP Rishi Sunak.

"The closure of the bulk of the steel manufacturing industry gave rise to an opportunity in terms of a free port area," he says.

"But while freeports are, and remain, a good opportunity, it is not a silver bullet and certainly not a done deal."

The Tees is a wide, deep river with huge capacity well beyond its current volumes with thousands of acres of empty brownfield land and the port in the middle, well away from any residential areas.

"Teesside itself is a region that embraces industry, having engineering, chemistry, oil and processing," says Mr Hopkinson.

"What the freeport is targeted at are companies who are globally mobile and looking at setting up a facility to manufacture, say batteries for electric-powered cars in Europe."

He says it is geared up for heavy industry and has the skills in place, and believes it could also become a world-class centre of excellence for developing and manufacturing offshore wind farms. But he admits while it would be light on bureaucracy, there would have to be checks and controls in place to ensure things were done properly.

Mr Houchen adds: “A freeport in the North-East, and specifically on the Tees at our South Tees Development Corporation site, will result in a hive of activity, enterprise and innovation right across our region. It will ensure we are ready to take full advantage of post-Brexit opportunities."

Mr Houchen gave international trade secretary Liz Truss a tour of the port - and she said it was 'ahead of the game' with regards to becoming one of the first freeports in the UK.

Businessiq:

He says: “Great ports like ours in Teesside made Britain the great global, outward looking nation we are today, and they are the gateway to our future prosperity. A freeport in the Tees Valley would make our region extremely attractive to major international investors, especially in sectors like chemicals, offshore renewables, energy and advanced manufacturing. Not only would they take advantage of an investment-friendly environment to create jobs and to power our economy, they would have access to some of the country’s most skilled workers.

“More than 32,000 new jobs could be created over the next 25 years.

“As I have said many times before, if we don’t bring attention to the fantastic opportunities that are available in our region, nobody will do it for us. We need to make the most of the opportunity to put the Tees Valley on the map.”