HAMPSHIRE could gain tens of thousands of new jobs under a plan to create one of the UK’s first “freeports” in the Solent, supporters say.

More than £2billion could be invested in the region if the government picks it for the freeport initiative, which would mean lower taxes and less red tape for businesses in designated areas, it is claimed.

The Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) submitted its freeport bid ahead of a government deadline yesterday.

It says the plan could generate 50,000 jobs, more than half of them in the Solent area, in sectors including including maritime, science and research, logistics and defence.

LEP chair Brian Johnson said: “We believe we have a compelling case for the Solent Freeport. If this once-in-generation bid is successful, it will directly support the government’s commitment to levelling-up the economy both here in the Solent and across the UK.

“Like many coastal communities, parts of our region have long-standing challenges to address deprivation and the pandemic has affected these communities more than most. Freeport status will enable us to create more than 50,000 jobs, many of them at major new employment sites that will ensure all parts of our area can benefit from the prosperity new trading relationships will bring.

“This is an opportunity for us to invest in all of our futures and we are committed to ensuring the strongest platform possible for a sustainable recovery. We have already made great progress supporting environmental innovation, including investment in a new, world leading zero emissions facility for cruise vessels in Southampton and Centre for Enzyme Innovation to develop green solutions for the breakdown of plastics in Portsmouth.

“Freeport status will act as a catalyst to help us take even more strides forward on innovation, job creation and green growth.”

Southampton-born chancellor Rishi Sunak has championed the freeport idea. He visited the city a year ago to launch a consultation on the subject, shortly before he was promoted to the number two job in government.

Mr Sunak has said freeports will be a way to “turbocharge post-Brexit trade”. Freeport sites will see the usual customs rules, planning policies and business taxes lifted. Businesses will be able to import materials and components and then export them without the normal tariffs or regulation.

Solent LEP’s proposal – submitted on behalf of a coalition of businesses, councils and other partners – would set up a range of low-tax and customs-free sites across the area. It is discussing specific locations with government but has not revealed them publicly.

Cllr Barry Rickman, leader of New Forest District Council, one of the local authorities involved in the bid coalition, said: “Becoming a freeport would help us rebuild our region’s economy after Covid. It would strengthen our ability to grow jobs and attract trade. Evidence from around the world has shown that freeports act as magnets for investment. We’re proud that our bid is based on sustainable growth and working together towards a net-zero carbon economy and a brighter future for our communities.”

Opponents of the freeport idea include the campaign group Fair Tax Mark, which says the idea is likely to exacerbate tax avoidance and and evasion, “encourage a global race to the bottom on corporation tax” and give an unfair advantage to some businesses.