A new freeport has opened on the Thames estuary in a move which could generate thousands of jobs for people in Kent and unlock huge new infrastructure projects.
Its backers say it will draw £4.5 billion of new investment, create 21,000 jobs and connect deprived areas in need of "levelling-up with mega ports such as London Gateway in the post-Brexit economy.
The launch comes just weeks after the UK’s first freeport opened for business in Teesside.
Minister for Levelling Up, Neil O’Brien said: “This is a truly exciting and momentous moment for London and the south east.
“Thames Freeport will turbocharge the region’s green energy credentials, inject billions into the economy and help level up by creating jobs and opportunities for local talent."
In the Chancellor's March budget, Rishi Sunak announced the locations for eight new freeports, including the Thames estuary, as part of the government's levelling up agenda.
The Thames Estuary Envoy Kate Willard hopes the free port – somewhere normal tax and customs rules do not apply – will form part of growing investment in the estuary area, including the support of Kent-based projects such as the London Resort in Swanscombe, a £2.5bn theme park and entertainment resort set to be reviewed by the Planning Inspectorate.
The project also has implications for another proposed major infrastructure project in the form of the Lower Thames Crossing.
Last month, National Highways – which is behind the scheme for an £8bn tunnel crossing between Chalk, near Gravesend and Essex – agreed to change its proposal to ensure the project will not impact the freeport’s potential.
An area of river frontage, which lies between the Port of Tilbury and the tunnel entrance, was planned to form part of a new public park and environmental mitigation for the Crossing but will now be set aside.
The change was made at the request of Thurrock Council which, alongside Gravesham council, remains opposed to the suggested route.
Matt Palmer, Lower Thames Crossing executive director, said: “One of our top priorities is supporting economic growth across the Thames Estuary and the government’s Freeport proposals will play an important role in the region’s future.
"We are committed to working with our partners in the area to unlock the full potential of the region."
It comes just over a year since the planning application for the Lower Thames Crossing was pulled at the eleventh hour.
Planning bosses said at the time of its withdrawal that a bid could be expected "early in the new year" but ongoing local concerns prompted a fresh round of public consultation on the proposed 14-mile route between Kent and Essex.
A spokesperson for National Highways said: "The team is currently working through analysing more than 5,000 response from the community impacts consultation held earlier in the year.
"Once this process has been completed, responses to the feedback will be made available to the public."
No specific timescales were given over its resubmission which is now expected some time in 2022.