Oxford, Cambridge and Milton Keynes have taken a central role in the fight against COVID-19, so the continuation of business activity was to be expected. The relative bias of the cities' economies towards science and technology has clearly been a key driver of this continued activity.
The university cities of Oxford and Cambridge combined has seen a near threefold increase in scientific and technical employment over the last decade. The latest ONS data shows a 72% increase in Oxford and Cambridge science and technical employment between 2017-18, compared with an 8% growth in employment overall. It is therefore perhaps not a surprise that the cities saw some of the lowest levels of staff furloughed in the country at 13% and 11% respectively compared with a national average of over 24%.
The continuation of business activity was reflected in the cities' office and lab markets despite the disruption and delayed decision-making. Take up in H1 reached 85% of the 10 year average in Oxford and 40% in Cambridge, although in the latter market there was a significant amount of space under offer at the end of June. Adjusting for this, we estimate take up would be closer to 80% of the ten year average.
The life science sector was inevitably a key driver of demand; the availability of lab space in Cambridge fell to just 3.5% by the end of June.
Meanwhile, take up in Milton Keynes is currently running in line with the 10 year average and ahead of 2019.
Given the disruption and uncertainty during the latter four months of H1, this is a remarkable outcome and testament to the unique business structure of these markets. To put this in context, the UK’s major regional cities, on average, saw an estimated 60% of their 10 year mean take over the same period, with less than 30% of the average in Q2.
Science and Tech as a springboard for growth
As the Government looks to the future of the UK economy and the levelling up agenda, the importance of science and technology to the national economic future is evident. While Oxford, Cambridge and London are defined as leading life science locations, cities such as Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and Leeds are identified as established or emerging locations (BioCity, 2019), potentially providing the springboard for future economic growth.
Given this, one of the key learning points from the Arc’s experience in the current crisis is the importance of critical mass. This is not only in the context of expertise in the universities and research institutes, but also the depth of private sector knowledge and facilities.
The power of critical mass
The Arc’s response to the pandemic has emphasised the value of having high tech manufacturing facilities cheek by jowl with laboratories, research institutes, teaching hospitals and the like. Together the area has demonstrated the power of collective ingenuity and collaborative culture.
Such depth cannot be created overnight, and a long-term strategy with involvement of a range of parties is needed, whether through the provision of investment funding for SMEs, laboratory space on flexible leases, infrastructure, or strategic planning for housing to attract the most important resource of all, skilled staff. This latter point is the greatest challenge for all locations, but perhaps it may be aided by our new-found ability to work flexibly, as both high skilled staff and organisations are able to look further afield for jobs and workers alike. The potential for a further expansion of scientific collaboration across the UK could be a positive side effect, again supporting a levelling-up agenda.
Capitalising on our existing clusters
But, the crisis has also highlighted the importance of not neglecting our areas of strength. There are many companies across the Arc, particularly SMEs in the science and technology sector, that have encountered severe challenges during the COVID-19 crisis. Lower levels of funding availability and delays in progressing trials and testing programmes impacting on funding milestones have combined with the ongoing physical challenges of available space, housing affordability and high skilled staff shortages. All these factors will have long term implications if not addressed.
The pandemic has brought science to the forefront of public consciousness. Policy consciousness needs to follow suit.
As Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser DBE FRS, takes on the role as the new Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), her plans to support new partnerships, greater international collaboration and ‘innovative funding models’ are therefore to be welcomed.
 Districts of Oxford, Value of White Horse, Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire