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Freeports talks back on between Scottish and UK governments

Aberdeen Harbour is one of the ports vying for freeport status.

The Scottish and UK governments are back round the table over stalled talks to develop ports with special tax status.

Discussions collapsed last year between the two governments after the SNP-Green administration at Holyrood said it wanted to pursue its own “green ports” plan.

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack had been unwilling to consider so-called “red line” requests from the Scottish Government, including payment of the real living wage.

But SNP Trade Minister Ivan McKee revealed to MSPs on Wednesday that “positive” discussions” have taken place over the last fortnight.

He promised further details on the “joint approach” in the “very near future” but said UK counterparts have “returned to the table on the basis of our requirements”.

However, a UK Government source stressed it was “wrong to suggest” the UK Government has changed its position on key criteria.

Freeport status

Aberdeen, Peterhead, Cromarty Firth and Dundee are among the port authorities vying for freeport status, which gives sites the ability to defer tax until products are moved on.

Nicola Sturgeon faced calls to intervene last year following the decision to drop out of the UK-wide talks, after Westminster failed to budge on the “red lines”.

Conservatives in Aberdeen warned the north-east could miss out a major jobs boost.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, Mr McKee said both governments were back working together on a “joint approach that will deliver a package of reserved and devolved incentives to Scottish ports that apply to be greenports”.

He added: “Those discussions have been positive so far and we do hope to set out the way forward very soon.”

But north-east Conservative MSP, Liam Kerr accused the Scottish Government of “grievance, division and grandstanding” over the scheme.

He highlighted that eight freeport locations have already been identified in England, with two already in operation.

This includes a site in Teeside, which expects to create more than 18,000 jobs.

Mr McKee hit back at Mr Kerr for his “completely misguided and inaccurate” remarks.

He added: “The Scottish Government only heard about the details of the English freeport offer when the bid prospective was released.

Scottish trade minister Ivan McKee.

“The UK Government hadn’t brought us into discussions on that earlier. We were very clear we will not do something that takes part in a race to the bottom.”

He continued: “We negotiated over the course of the last year in good faith with the UK Government.

“But they made it very clear they were not willing to engage in a process whereby payment of the real living wage was a part of the requirement and where net zero requirements were part of the offer.

“They have since returned to the table on the basis of our requirements and as a consequence we are moving forward with those discussions.”

‘We remain extremely hopeful’

A UK Government source said: “We are continuing to discuss freeports with the Scottish Government and remain extremely hopeful we will be able to work together to deliver the full benefits of this UK-wide scheme which has enormous potential to boost the economy and create high quality jobs.

“We recognise the Scottish Government has moved a long way from its initial outright hostility to freeports and we give credit to Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, who has been negotiating with us, for keeping an open mind.

“However, Ivan McKee is wrong to suggest the UK Government has changed its position on the criteria that would be considered as part of the bidding process to become a freeport.”

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