RISHI Sunak has delivered a “game changing” boost Southampton by giving the go-ahead for a ‘freeport’ that could create 25,000 local jobs, it is claimed.

The chancellor, who was born and raised in the city, announced at the end of his Budget that Solent was one of eight areas to have their bids for freeport status approved.

Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which submitted the application, has said more than £2billion could be invested in the region under the proposal, which would mean lower taxes and less red tape for businesses in designated areas. It says 52,000 jobs could flow from the bid, more than half of them locally.

Explained: What does £2bn Solent freeport plan mean for Hampshire?

Royston Smith, Conservative MP for Southampton Itchen, said: “The announcement by the chancellor is game-changing for Southampton.

“The Solent Freeport will help to drive the economic recovery and growth in the city which I have long been campaigning for. The government promised that it would seek to provide more opportunities for every region of the United Kingdom and today it is delivering on that promise.

“This scheme creates the opportunity for billions of pounds of investment in Southampton and across the region and promises to create thousands of jobs across the next few years.”

Solent 'freeport' plan could create more than 25,000 local jobs, it is claimed

Solent LEP chair Brian Johnson said the announcement represented “the start of a new era for the Solent”.

“The wide coalition of public and private partners brought together by the LEP puts us in the strongest possible position to bring this vision for a Solent Freeport to reality,” he said.

“As the nation’s global gateway, the Solent Freeport will be critical to ensuring that the UK can remain competitive on an international stage in the years ahead and the LEP is committed to ensuring that our local communities – and in particular our young people – can benefit from the opportunities created,” he added.

Freeport sites will see the usual customs rules, planning policies and business taxes lifted, so businesses can import materials and components and then export them without the normal tariffs or regulations.

Steve Szalay, operations director at Southampton Airport – which is awaiting a decision on plans to extend its runway – said: “We have been working closely with the Solent LEP on their bid as the airport is a vital component to the freeport. We are optimistic about the pivotal role that we can play in repositioning and rebuilding the region. That is why we are calling on our councillors to approve the runway extension to ensure that we are able to continue to connect the central south, nationally and internationally.”

New Forest District Council leader Cllr Barry Rickman, a member of the Solent LEP board, said the announcement was “fantastic news for the Solent area and our economy”.

He added: “As a coastal area, we have communities that have been very badly impacted by the pandemic and today’s news represents an opportunity for us to start to recover and create much needed new jobs in those areas.

“Over the longer-term, we see the Solent Freeport as an investment in all our futures that will enable us to secure investment in new technologies, sectors and environmental innovation.”

Southampton Test’s Labour MP Alan Whitehead said the news was “potentially good news for Southampton”.

But he added: “However, going forward the government must make sure that the freeport actually benefits the people of Southampton and doesn’t just serve big businesses with large tax breaks."

Critics fear freeports will encourage existing businesses to relocate, rather than create new ones. The campaign group Fair Tax Mark is concerned they will encourage tax avoidance and evasion.

Eastleigh MP Paul Holmes said: “Our exciting freeport bid, combining Southampton Airport and the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth is now a reality. The freeport will increase investment, jobs and wages in the local economy.”

Robin Shepherd, of the Southampton planning consultancy Barton Willmore, said: “The Solent region is recognised as an international gateway, not only to the EU but also to the rest of the world, and a significant amount of trade passes through the Solent port as a result.

“So it’s great news for the Solent but it’s also great news for the UK, and we look forward to the investment that follows, to provide yet further improvements to the infrastructure to support the ports and help fuel economic growth in the Solent – from which all benefit.”