Nolan Gray, Freeport Director, Tees Valley Combined Authority

The Teesside Freeport – the UK’s largest and first operational Freeport – provides an unprecedented opportunity to create a step change in the region’s economy.

Spanning 4,500 acres and with a site in every Tees Valley town, the Freeport is projected to create thousands of jobs and pump billions of pounds back into an area that is spearheading the UK’s net zero ambitions with vast and exciting projects taking place across the zones offering tax and customs exemptions and benefits.  

The region – and Freeport – is home to the east coast of England’s deepest port, alongside the UK’s fifth largest maritime complex. A new 1km heavy lift quay is now under development on the River Tees and these, plus the Tees Offshore Manufacturing centre all mark us out as a major trading region. 

Of course, we recognise friction at the border is a major problem for importers and exporters. International fragmentation, inconsistent rules and regulations and time-consuming inefficient paper trails can all be expensive, time-consuming stumbling blocks for businesses looking to do business and expand. 

This is doubly an issue for small or medium-sized companies, which may not have the resources or funds to deal with onerous requirements. A typical trade transaction can take up to 2-3 months to complete and involve up to 27 paper documents. Four billion paper documents float through the trading system at any given time, and only 1% of bills of lading are currently handled in digital form.

These companies make up some 99% of Tees Valley’s businesses and are collectively the area’s single biggest economic driver. 

At Teesside Freeport we are wholly embracing a future with frictionless borders.

We’ve invested in the Centre for Digital Trade and Innovation (C4DTI), which benefits from the unique offer of the Teesside Freeport. C4DTI is an International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), global initiative based at Teesside University. It is industry-led and government-supported, working with the ICC Digital Standards Initiative, governments, business groups, companies and international partners.

Teesside Freeport involves a multitude of public and private sector partners moving a variety of cargo via sea, air, rail and road. This naturally gives an extensive and diverse set of opportunities in which to apply the principles and practicalities of fully digitised borders.

As a region with an innovative digital sector and expertise stemming from Teesside University, we are working together with a number of trusted commercial partners and suppliers on this far-reaching project.

Through the C4DTI, we provide an impartial environment in which industry and government can collaborate on practical pilot work to accelerate the pace and scale of digitalisation, ensure there is a consistent application of standards, rules and laws and increase the prospects for the adoption of digital trading processes in the future. We are agnostic to technology and advocate for open, interoperable systems.

In developing single trade windows, with products flowing in and out using digitised documents, we are supporting pilot challenges to identify issues and solutions, undertaking end-to-end cross-border supply chain pilots to test standardised systems and processes while further researching additional barriers to trade and their digital solutions. 

The digitisation of imports and exports immediately reduces the onus on businesses to keep paper trails while ensuring transparent and accountable supply chains. It allows for more efficient investigations if error occurs, reducing delays and expense.

This is not going to be an instant solution and will take time to implement. But a simpler, more reliable and faster system is key for both the movement of goods and swift payment is more vital than ever as firms still feel the effects of the coronavirus pandemic some three years on. 

Recognising the importance of the simplification of trade for our businesses, particularly our SMEs, we’re going further and looking to establish a fully digitised test bed within Tees Valley to trial all manner of systems to further enable movement of goods on a digitised and frictionless basis both internationally and intra-country.

This way, we can make it easier to do business with the world while pioneering the innovative technologies that will bring global trade truly into the 21st century.