Part of the South Hams could be earmarked for a government-backed scheme which will mean lower taxes for businesses and relaxed planning regulations for new developments.

South Hams District Council (SHDC) agreed to submit an expression of interest for the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport to become one of dozens of possible Investment Zones across the country.

The aim is to gain additional economic incentives for the Sherford, Langage and South Yard sites which form the Freeport project.

But the move was only narrowly agreed by councillors after many said there was too little information to give it the go-ahead.

Investment Zones were announced by chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng in September’s mini-budget and aim to provide designated development sites which will release more land for housing and commercial development, and support accelerated development.

Further benefits may include 100 per cent business rates relief on newly occupied and expanded premises and full stamp duty land tax relief on land bought for commercial or residential development.

The need for planning applications will be minimised or will be radically streamlined.

At the South Hams Special Council meeting on Thursday 13 October, council leader and Conservative member for Salcombe and Thurlestone, Judy Pearce said: “It will deliver the seed capital grant from government of £25 million for essential infrastructure.

“It will include £29 million of investment from local councils that will be paid back by the business rates that go back into the sites.

“It will support a new £30 million innovation centre at Oceansgate.

“It will deliver 3,500 jobs and will enhance available business benefits and incentives over a longer time period.”

But Lib Dem councillor for Ivybridge East, Victor Abbott, said he was concerned about plans to tear up normal planning rules.

“Without a clear constraint on legal limits on the planning, I have no trust that the planning rules will not be bent or overturned to permit building across the South Hams,” he said.

“I won’t add my vote to that. Are you for the AONB [Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty] or not? Are you for protecting the South Hams or not?”

Green Party member for Dartington and Staverton, Jacqi Hodgson, suggested the focus was on supporting big business rather than local people. “Why are we supporting the private sector to build expensive yachts, replenish the nuclear deterrent at Devonport, etc?” she asked.

“Why are we not investing to meet our real local needs for social and affordable housing, more food production, renewable energy, anaerobic digestion to clean our waterways and actions that will help us address the climate emergency?

“Investing in the free-for-all private enterprises with the promise of reduced planning and environmental controls is simply inviting those who are unlikely to make any contribution to addressing these real, local and global needs.”

Lib Dem member for Stokenham, Cllr Julian Brazil, said he supported the freeport initiative but argued investment zones were a step too far.

“I cannot go as far as this investment zone,” he said. “It is a war on nature. It’s a war on biodiversity. It’s a war on our environment. And it’s a war on local democracy.”

But some members spoke strongly in favour of submitting an expression of interest in the investment zone.

Richard Foss (Conservative, Allington and Strete) said: “There are things we don’t know, but this is an expression of interest.

“If we turn it down, as I understand it, it won’t be available again. That may or may not be true, but I don’t wish to miss out on something that for years we’ve been grumbling [about] down this part of the world, south west of England; the lack of investment that we get. “It’s been appalling. We’ve been left out. We know that. And here’s an opportunity to to make things better.”

Conservative councillor for Ermington and Ugborough, Tom Holway, agreed with Cllr Foss and added: “I think the young people of the South Hams and indeed Plymouth deserve better.

“I think if we have the right kind of investment we can then pay for the proper education and training so that youngsters can look forward to a better paid job.”

Cllr Brazil hoped to introduce an amendment ensuring the decision was reconsidered by full council but had to withdraw it after it emerged the council needed to submit its expression of interest by the following day, Friday 14 October.

Councillors agreed to submit the bid with 13 votes in favour and 11 against.