The government is planning to create up to 10 duty-free or low-tax ports and airports across the UK after Brexit.
Free ports are used by firms to import goods and then re-export them outside of normal tax and customs rules.
Labour criticised the move, claiming it involved no new investment and would attract money launderers and tax dodgers.
Seaports and airports can apply for free port status, to be set up after the UK is due to leave the EU on 31 October.
It is likely that priority will be given to economically challenged areas such as Teesside, Aberdeen, and Belfast, in the hope that they will “turbocharge” growth and ensure towns and cities across the UK benefit from a Brexit trade boost.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss says free ports are a ‘gateway’ to the UK’s future prosperity. “I look forward to working with the Free ports Advisory Panel to create the world’s most advanced freeport model and launch the new ports as soon as possible.”
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government created free ports in Birmingham, Belfast, Cardiff, Liverpool, Prestwick and Southampton, but David Cameron’s coalition government stopped renewing their licences in 2012.
A free port remains in operation on the Isle of Man – a crown dependency and therefore not part of the EU or UK – and there are currently 82 in the EU, including Copenhagen and Bremen.
The government claims the new UK free ports will be hubs for business and enterprise for manufacturing and services, potentially free of unnecessary checks and paperwork, and enjoying customs and tax benefits.
Ministers claim they will reduce costs and bureaucracy, encourage manufacturing businesses to set up or re-locate and create jobs for local people through liberalised planning laws.
Ports which have already expressed an interest in the bidding process include the Port of Tyne, Milford Haven, Teesport, and London Gateway.