Will planning reform be enough to deliver the help scientists really need?

31.5.23 3 MINUTE READ

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To supercharge the Oxford-Cambridge arc and the economy at large, the government must follow through its intention to liberalise planning bottlenecks.

Last week's government pledge to invest in the UK's Life Science sector to bolster the country's economy cements the sector firmly at the top of the UK's political agenda. 

The economic potential of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc is overwhelming. It is estimated that the life sciences and tech industries make the UK economy £94 billion each year, but failing to accommodate the expansion of high value industry in the globally leading cluster could mean that economic growth falls at least £50 billion short of its full potential. Investors are exceptionally eager and ready to deploy capital into the area.

This potential, and the opportunity to transform the UK into an R&D powerhouse, is currently locked by an incredibly obstructive planning system. It is a bottleneck reflected in the chronic shortage of lab-space in the region, where availability rates are near-zero. Last Friday, the government announced plans to update planning regulations as part of its new ‘Life-Sci for growth package’ to fire up the economy. It was a welcome recognition of an antiquated planning system that serves only as a blockage investment.

The government said it would consult on adding requirements to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to say that decision makers pay R&D needs special attention, including the need for additional laboratory space. It also said that it was updating the Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) to assist local authorities in taking fuller account of the commercial land requirements of businesses. We fully support this at Bidwells as we see the disconnect between the investment and occupier markets and planning policy on a daily basis. Recognising trends and responding positively rather than conservatively is essential to meet the needs of the sector, another measure will be the implementation of ‘proactive planning tools’, such as Local Development Orders and Development Corporations which, it is hoped, will facilitate and hasten the speed of development.

While these are steps in the right direction, much longer strides will be needed if we are to fully realise the region’s vast potential. The issue here will be inthe detail. The policy wording needs to be further fleshed out so that the R&D sector, developers, and local Councils are certain on what is now achievable. The government’s full intention here remains murky, even if it is less so than it was previously. The vagueness charge is also applicable to the rhetoric surrounding updates to the NPPF and the PPG. It is undoubtedly good that the government intends to make the planning system more responsive to the needs of R&D.

But it should also be welcomed tentatively until we get a clearer picture of what this will actually mean, and what will incentivise decision makers to ‘pay regard’ to the needs of R&D businesses in an environment that has up to this point been remarkably inhibitive for development. Bold action will be crucial if we want to offer companies looking to invest in the UK the certainty that is so coveted by deployers of capital. This lack of certainty acts as an economic break. UK business investment is barely higher today than it was in 2007. Only last week, the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi state-backed clean energy group Masdar complained that UK bureaucracy and poor infrastructure was holding back inward investment in renewable energy. Unfortunately, it is an issue affecting high-growth industries across the board and is instructive of a wider failure from successive policy makers to capitalise on the country’s growth potential, for which the shortage of lab space in the Oxford-Cambridge arc serves as a damning case study.

One measure that we can welcome with open arms is the announced update to the East West rail network, which will now go via the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. This should alleviate pressures caused by a skills shortage among scientists and researchers by offering talent a cheap and reliable route to the world leading R&D ecosystems that constitute an area that containing the UK’s greatest concentration of innovation assets. However, any delay or lack of certainty in achieving this update will further undermine vital confidence from investors and businesses looking to make long term investment decisions, which will severely impact on long term UK economic growth ambitions.

Much like entities looking to invest in the UK at the moment, we must ‘wait and see’ to find out whether the government will follow through with its intention to supercharge growth in the region, as well as the economy at large.

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Mike Derbyshire

Partner, Head of Planning

Mike leads Bidwells’ planning practice. He is a passionate and vastly experienced advocate for thoughtful, well-designed development and a thought leader on the future of planning in England.

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28 June at the QEII, London

Creating a Scientific Superpower

Science and real estate call for national effort to make Britain a scientific superpower.

For the second year running, EG and Bidwells will host this conference that will revisit how far Britain has come in unlocking its scientific potential, and how real estate is evolving to enable the UK to become a global science and technology superpower.

We will explore what challenges the UK faces in attracting key talent and investment to drive our economy forward during a time of uncertainty. 

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