Freeport: How a St Helens business led the way to become the Liverpool City Region’s first Customs Site Operator (CSO)

Back in December, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove approved the Liverpool City Region’s full business case to be named one of only eight Freeport sites across England.

Freeports are special areas within the UK’s borders where different economic regulations apply. By delivering investment on specific sites benefitting from tax and customs incentives, the Liverpool City Region Freeport is expected to create 14,000 jobs and boost the local economy by £850m.

Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, worked with the region’s political leaders to ensure the city region’s Freeport plans would deliver the benefits of growth in a way that aligns with their values and priorities.  They have made it clear that they want to attract investors who believe in, and support, their local ambitions, and will help to protect workers’ rights and uphold standards, while working to deliver much needed regeneration and drive the region’s success.­­­

Every Freeport needs at least one approved Customs Site Operator (CSO) to be approved, and it was local business SSO International Freight Forwarding based in Haydock in St Helens, which won accreditation as the first CSO for the city region.

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Angus Hirst is their Director of Customs, a role he’s just moved into this month after being the Organisation’s Head of Customs for the last year.

“It was a rigorous process to apply for this status, but we received great support from the Combined Authority’s Freeport team. Despite parent company SSO Logistics being an established business which had been going for 10 years, SSO International was brand new, so I started looking at opportunities for them and how they could be connected to Freeport and what was happening there. I just thought, go for it and apply. It’s a huge process but I felt the company had a lot of what was required to be a Customs Site Operator.”

27-year-old Angus has been the drive behind SSO International’s effort to secure the accreditation.

Angus Hirst smiling at the camera

Angus Hirst

Having family living in Liverpool, he moved to the city from Halifax in Yorkshire to study, reading French and German at the University of Liverpool.

On graduating he accepted a role as an entry level clerk at international customs company Bolloré Logistics in the city centre which is a global leader in international transport and logistics, with a presence in 148 countries.

With Brexit about to happen, Angus was quickly promoted to a supervisor role, and when his manager moved on, Angus became Customs Manager at Bolloré in 2020.

“I found it a fascinating industry to work in. I spent 18 months there at what was a changing time for the sector, but I was looking to have more control over the projects I was working on. SSO International had just been launched and I saw the opportunity help shape something from scratch.”

“I wanted to give SSO International an edge on other companies, so I began to look into Freeport and what we would need to be a Customs Site Operator. I thought it would definitely benefit the family-owned business.

“It was a steep learning curve, and the application process was rigorous but worth it!”

SSO International now operates a full range of import and export services from their designated customs site consisting of a brand new 50,000 square foot secure warehouse in Haydock, with easy access to the M62 and M6, as well as Liverpool and Manchester airports, and the Port of Liverpool.

Their relocation to the Haydock warehouse in 2021 was supported with a £125,000 loan from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Flexible Growth Fund.

Angus said:

“Freeport is expected to create 14,000 new highly skilled jobs and deliver £800m of investment so it’s great news for the city region economy. I hope it will bring more manufacturers into the region as well.

“If companies are looking to expand then having the Freeport status gives us an advantage because there are a lot of customs benefits for businesses importing their goods in a Freeport area.

“SSO International is a very family orientated organisation and I’ve had the freedom to explore in what direction we can grow and what we can achieve. Now we’ve been successful in our Freeport status, we’ve got to make it work by providing businesses and manufacturers with the support they need so they can continue to help us expand and improve. I’m delighted with the progress we have made and the level of opportunity for the future.”

City region leaders chose to pursue businesses and industries that aligned with the values and priorities of the Combined Authority. These include innovation in advanced manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and green energy – with a particular focus on the region’s target to be net zero carbon by 2040 at the latest.

The Port of Liverpool already handles 45% of trade from the US as it is the key coastal access point to the UK’s largest concentration of manufacturing.

Angus Hirst standing in the warehouse with shelves of products behind him.

Angus Hirst in the warehouse.

Having graduated only five years ago, Angus believes there is a lot of opportunity for young people coming to the city region, to stay and make a life here.

“When I came to look around the University of Liverpool, there was just something about it. I had seen others, but there was so much going on here. The people are friendly, the city centre is great, full of hustle and bustle, the city has a very strong diverse culture and then there’s the music!

“When I graduated in 2018, I wanted to stay in the city region, so that was a driving factor when looking for jobs. Logistics allowed me to use my languages, but I didn’t realise how much I would like it.

“I think customs and logistics is definitely an area that students considering their career should think about, especially with the strength of the Maritime industry in the city region. Imports and exports in the UK are massive and they’re still growing, the Liverpool City Region could be at the forefront of it all.

“I want to continue working in this area, I really enjoy it, although I don’t think I expected things to move as quickly as they did, let alone we’d be the first company chosen to become a Customs Site Operator in the city region.

“The last five years have been an absolute whirlwind experience. I love living in the city region, I have bought a home here, I have friends living nearby and I see my future as an ‘honorary scouser’ here, so I’m definitely in it for the long term.”

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