The FTA said a plan by the government to establish 10 freeports in the UK as part of its “levelling-up” agenda has the potential to unlock significant opportunities for international trade.

However, it also warned that the policy brings with it a host of problems relating to competition, planning and friction with the Northern Ireland protocol and it urged clarity and more details about their creation.

Freeports are zones considered as outside their home country for customs purposes, enabling goods to come in and out tariff-free.

The government believes they will aid its levelling up agenda, by helping to reduce the disparities in productivity and earnings across the UK, but critics said their effectiveness is not proven.

A consultation into their use closed this week and it is expected that the Autumn Budget will be used to invite applications from candidates.

Zoe McLernon, FTA multimodal policy manager, said its members supported the concept but that they were not a “miracle cure for economic malaise”.

The FTA wants the government to consider a multi-site concept, or virtual freeport zones, to provide a corridor of opportunity for businesses and industries not already operating in the direct vicinity of a port. “FTA’s members also want to see government provide a clear definition of a Freeport,” she said. “Clear parameters, in addition to economic assessments, need to be established to better understand the proposals.

“FTA does have some concerns over the compatibility of freeports with the Northern Ireland Protocol. If a Freeport is considered in NI it may present a conflict with EU level playing field rules.”

The British Ports Association (BPA) said it was committed to working with the government to make a freeport model work in the UK, but it questioned the “arbitrary cap” of only allowing 10.

Richard Ballantyne, BPA chief executive, said: “We have therefore made the case for a model that incorporates maximum ambition – in both scope and scale.

“Coastal communities are often in areas of high deprivation and have also challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

“Without being more inclusive the government risks being accused of favouritism in the implementation of its levelling up agenda.”