What the F* is the opportunity? All about the Solent *Freeport with Brian Johnson and Tim Williamson

16 Mar 2022
No Comments

What the F* is the opportunity? All about the Solent *Freeport with Brian Johnson and Tim Williamson

In the 6th episode of Let’s Talk South Coast, Nella is joined by Brian Johnson, UK Business Development Director at BAE Systems Naval Ships, Chair of Solent LEP and Chair of Solent Freeport Consortium, and Tim Williamson, Managing Associate at Foot Anstey LLP. In this episode they dive into the Solent Freeport opportunity. The Solent Freeport will unlock billions of pounds’ worth of investment, create tens of thousands of new jobs and level up the important coastal communities on the South Coast. They discuss how the Solent Freeport can compete globally and whether there are any social and environmental impacts from the new Freeport. The key takeaway from this episode is that the Solent Freeport is looking for suitable, sustainable and high-quality investment that the South Coast can provide the skills for.

Key Insights From This Episode:

    • Our region is a gateway region to the UK. – Brian 
    • We need to up-skill our local workforce to be doing high quality jobs in the Freeport. – Brian
    • With the business race, ultimately that money goes back into our councils and they can regenerate certain areas that are required in order to retain the talent on our doorstep. – Nella
    • The Solent has a track record in translating innovation and new technologies into commercial success. – Nella
    • It is not a wild west in the freeport. – Tim
    • What the Solent Freeport is looking for is suitable, sustainable and high-quality investment that we can provide the skills for. – Brian
    • There are oblique benefits for the broader business community such as an opportunity to come together, to be really galvanised, to share ideas and to discuss ideas. – Tim
    • The spirit of cooperation for the region is what’s made our application work in government. – Brian
    • The growth agenda and a green agenda are intertwined therefore businesses want investment that can be made in a sustainable way. – Tim
    • The Solent Freeport is the UKs most important gateway to Europe and the global markets. It provides the closest direct access to over 70 ports globally and is a major opportunity for the UK as it seeks to develop new trading relationships. – Nella

About Our Guests:

Brian Johnson, UK Business Development Director at BAE Systems Naval Ships. Chair Solent LEP, Chair Solent Freeport Consortium. Brian is the UK Business Development Director at BAE Systems Maritime and works in Portsmouth Naval Base. He brings a wealth of private sector experience to his role, with over 20 years’ experience in the Marine and Maritime sector at organisations such as Thales, Marconi and the aforementioned BAE Systems. Brian is also on the Board of the Society of Maritime Industries. Brian is the Solent LEP Chair and also represents and engages with the SME business community as the Solent LEP Board SME Champion.


Tim Williamson, Managing Associate at Foot Anstey LLP. Tim is a highly regarded and experienced lawyer who provides clients based in the UK and overseas with clear and practical advice in a responsive and commercial way.   Tim has developed a complete ‘regulatory’ practice since qualification in 2007, from his beginnings in the criminal courts of England and Wales defending motorists accused of road traffic offences now extending to advising multinational organisations, schools, colleges and football clubs to name a few.  Tim’s time is principally spent advising clients facing investigation or prosecution by the police or other regulatory bodies with the power to impose sanctions. Tim works closely with clients to anticipate regulatory risks in their sector and review practices in place within the business to minimise the risk of adverse issues arising. Tim regularly delivers training to senior leaders looking at crisis and critical incident planning and response.


[01:26] Tim, what is the UK Freeport initiative? 

  • Freeports are not new to the UK, it had freeports until 2012. Rishi Sunak had a desire to introduce a new model for freeports. 
  • After lots of consultation, 8 sites were chosen to be the UK freeports. 
  • A combination of tax and customs sites, principally it led to great benefits for those businesses, investing in those particular sites as part of an agenda to drive investment and innovation in the UK.

[02:55] Brian, what does this mean for our region and why is it important?

  • There are also 2 freeports in Scotland called Green Freeports. 
  • The 8 sites are not in competition with each other but everyone has got to get business cases done, which have got to be approved by parliament.
  • There are a lot of things making up a business case and a major point is the government wanted to be an intervention at scale so every freeport had to find 200 hectares of land.

[05:43] What is Solent Freeport’s USP and how do we compete globally?

  • Our region is a gateway region to the UK. East Coast is the link to the EU and Southampton is the link to the world. 
  • On the tax side, the new levelling up white paper was a bit more sophisticated than the old North – South divide. 
  • This is going to allow us to unlock some land that’s needed unlocking for a long time, with a bit of economic stimulus.
  • The Solent Freeport brings together the airport and the seaports. 
  • This is a centre for innovation, for research and we’ve got some world-leading universities who are really research-led. 

[09:26] Are there any government grants or local grants that will attract more businesses into the region? 

  • There’s two major fiscal incentives around the tax sites; there’s about six different incentives for businesses to set up there in terms of business rates and what’s good for the wider region is the business rates and then the additional business rates created are retained in the region. 
  • The reason that the Freeport board has had to be set up very carefully and correctly with government oversight is the retained rates over 25 years are in the hundreds of millions.
  • What can be done with the retained rates can be spent for the good of the ambitions of the Freeport.

[11:15] When do you believe that the Solent Freeport will be live? 

  • The tax, custom and the governance needs to be approved. 
  • When all of this is done, you put down a statutory vehicle in parliament. 
  • When the full business case, the tax sites and the custom sites are approved, we will become a Freeport and at that point, we can apply for the seed funding. 
  • It will be done before I go on my summer holidays. 

[12:52] When the Solent does go live, what are the advantages for businesses to be investing in and operating and using the designated freeport? 

  • It’s the benefits to the tax site and the customer site.
  • The real value in all that is what it means for the broader region; the investment, the regeneration, the development and the jobs. 
  • Claiming relief on SDLT for qualifying land, and that is where you are buying it for the trading of your business.
  • Businesses in these freeports are not operating in any way outside UK law.

[19:26] Does the Solent Freeport cover a 45-kilometre diameter? 

  • New legislation has allowed us to take the 45km circle and calculate 150 square km but it doesn’t have to be a circle. 
  • We’ve redrawn it in a way that fits the local politics and fits the local business of our region rather than it just being a circle. 

[21:21] Outside of these tax zones, what are the benefits to those businesses that are not within those tax or custom sites? 

  • Regulation of helping businesses navigate the regulatory framework that applies in their industry and their sector anticipated changes, and then helping them befriend the freeport engagement network. 
  • Infrastructure and innovation. 

[23:55] You’ve mentioned that there are 200 hectares of land which are zoned for these tax and custom sites, but is there enough for industrial land and how will the Solent Freeport help to bring these developments forward? 

  • What we have done that has enabled us to go to landowners, you have land and ask them to put it into this freeport in a way that’s packaged.
  • What this has done has created a rallying call to get businesses who had spare land to package it together in a way that it can be developed with expertise. 
  • It’s a good opportunity to think about what we have, and how we make the best use of it.

[26:06] Should all our clients be investing in the region before the Solent Freeport officially goes live, or hold out on their expansion plans and wait for that official approval so they can use the benefits of the incentives? 

  • The benefits in the tax sites tend to flow from when the tax site is created.
  • There is a role now in scouting out opportunities, preparing yourself, and laying the foundations for an investment of thinking in your commercial strategy.

[28:19] In terms of the sectors that are going into these tax sites, is it mainly focused on industrial warehouses or are there offices? 

  • We are talking about high-quality employment, such as advanced manufacturing or biotech. 
  • What we’re looking for is suitable sustainable high-quality investment that we can provide the skills for.

[31:04] Could there be a social and environmental impact by becoming a freeport and how are we balancing the social environmental interests against commercial interests?

  • We’ve got the New Forest represented on our board and they hold us to task about doing the right thing. 
  • If you’re in business now, a green agenda goes with it.
  • Bringing along the community with this is probably as important as the specific green agenda. 

[34:36] What support do you need from the private sector to make the Solent Freeport a success?

  • We need them to engage, be enthused and come and take advantage of the things we’re doing and we need them to talk to us. 

[36:02] Do you have any get-togethers planned? 

  • We will have a get-together as soon as we know we can go live and we will invite all the right stakeholders. 

 [36:32] How do we protect all local businesses and when you talk about the tax sites, how do we make sure that it’s fair?

  • Nobody must be left behind. 
  • There is a positive impact from the business community at large; being more agile, being more dynamic, being more focused and coming together more frequently to listen to what business needs
  • The tax sites had to sign these agreements, so they are to an extent giving up a little bit of freedom on their land, as well as getting a bit of incentive doing it.

[39:31] With these tax sites, these landowners are going to be developing buildings to facilitate these businesses or have they already put plans in place? 

  • Some places are more advanced than others. 
  • Each landowner has got their own plans about how they develop it. 

[40:16] How quickly can we become an operational freeport? 

  • Within the legislation, the writing authorities make a prediction of the retained rates and the government approves that. The local authorities can borrow in advance of those rates as some pump running money. 
  • We don’t have to wait till the end of it to do this.

[41:26] Quick Fire Questions

1.Who are the movers and shakers of our region?

    • Tim: The energy commitment to the businesses in this part of the world has been phenomenal. 
    • Brian: Local enterprise partnerships, the people who work with them and attached to the LEP board, we have 5/6 specialist panels and the elected councillors with their economic teams. 

2.What is the best thing you would say about living on the South Coast?

      • Tim: It is a green and pleasant place and what’s great about living in some place that has a real sense of place, a real sense of identity, and is it’s really easy to shout about. 
      •  Brian:  I like the sea and I like maritime.

3. What is your favourite mantra to live by? 

    • Tim: If not now, when?
    • Brian:  Forgiveness is easier than permission.


Companies Mentioned:

Shout Outs:

About Our Host

Nella Pang

I left the corporate world in 2020 and launched Omega RE a commercial advisory firm in a pandemic, whilst on maternity. Brave some people would say. 🚀

The pandemic has taught many of us a thing or two, particularly on how we can do business. I support businesses to navigate the complexities of Commercial Real Estate, so they can achieve their business objectives through their Real Estate decisions.

Lease negotiations can be a minefield. Even small mistakes can drive up costs. That’s why I will represent your interests every step of the way, ensuring you receive full value of our experience and market knowledge.

With over 18 years’ experience in the Commercial Property Market having worked for the big corporates Jones Lang LaSalle Limited, BNP Paribas Real Estate and Vail Williams.

I want to be able to share my corporate knowledge with my clients, whilst offering a more personal dedicated commercial advisory service.

Having acted for a wide range of clients from major pension funds to private investors, small businesses and individuals. I love meeting people and I am passionate about adding value to my clients business and watching their business thrive.

About Omega RE

Omega RE is commercial property advisory firm based on the South Coast. Providing expert advice to Landlords, Occupiers in the industrial, office and retail markets.

Omega RE is always thinking ‘Outside the Box’ in our advice to clients and the way we do business. We don’t settle for mediocre, we challenge the norm and are dedicated to finding solutions that is best for our clients.

We are a people business, based on strong relationships and partnerships, and we offer a personal level of service.

As the market evolves, we will too adapt to be successful and want the same for our clients. We are committed to finding innovative ways of marketing and how to do things more efficiently.

We will never stagnate.

We are disciplined in everything we do, we take time to understand the situation and set a bespoke strategy for each client. Not one size fits all. We do not cut corners or take short cuts and our integrity is undisputed.

Providing clients’ a hands on approach to finding the perfect property; office, industrial, warehouse or retail space to meet business needs and negotiating the best commercial lease terms, is what we do best.

We come to work because we’re passionate about providing expert, innovative, independent advice to clients. We want to help businesses navigate the complexities of Commercial Real Estate.

Follow us on


Launch Your Own Podcast

Kopus.com is the leading podcast production and strategic content company for brands, organisations, institutions, individuals, and entrepreneurs. Our team sets you up with the right strategy, equipment, training, and guidance and content to ensure you sound amazing while speaking to your niche audience and networking with your perfect clients. Get in touch jason@kopus.com

Share this post