David Brooks Wilson was given the Colliers report in April. It won’t have made pleasant reading
Wye is one of the last places in South East England that you’d be likely to achieve success with a science or research park, something that the man in charge of Imperial’s project has known only too well since April, a leaked report has revealed. The study, which the college has tried to keep out of the public domain, warns that the commercial side of Imperial’s vision would be jeopardised by Ashford’s poorly skilled workforce and because the park would be sited 60 miles from Imperial’s main campus.
The paper — titled ‘UK science parks and the ingredients for success’ — was commissioned from Colliers CRE by David Brooks Wilson in February at a time when many connected with the project believed it would be a ‘cakewalk’ having secured the enthusiastic backing of Kent County Council and Ashford Borough Council. Since then, a string of confidential reports have cast doubt on the viability of the project while Imperial has made Wye its ‘Plan B’ as it attempts to woo BP to open its biofuels research institute at the South Kensington campus. Nevertheless, the Colliers report makes grim reading for anybody still under any illusion that Wye could be made to work as a commercial centre of cutting-edge research. The report itself has been buried by Imperial’s estates department so we have no reason to think that anybody on the college’s governing council or management board knows about the warnings it contains. It also makes very unpleasant reading for those responsible for the economic well-being of Ashford as a whole with its warning that the lack of a professional and technically skilled worforce in the borough will have a negative effect on any commercial research park at Wye.
Colliers highlights seven factors upon which the successful development of any science park is dependent: location, accessibility, nature of design, quality of facilities, branding, academic involvement and skilled labour pool. Given that two of these are unknown because it hasn’t reached the design stage yet, Wye Park scores on only one — branding.
On the others, its conclusions are:
Location: Colliers says that Wye/Ashford is not an area renowned for its scientific or pharmaceutical expertise.
Accessibility: The report highlights the poor road network in Kent, saying that it does not ‘favour swift access to London or major South East airports.
Academic involvement: Colliers believes that Imperial’s ‘first hand commitment’ to Wye is crucial to the scheme given the distance between the village and the main university campus. ‘Relocation of primary research facilities, currently stymied at Imperial due to the constraints on the exisiting Kensington site, will be essential if a critical mass of occupation is to be achieved in the desired timeframe.’ And it adds: ‘Those parks around Oxford and Cambridge derive immediate first hand benefits from the R&D activities of the university life sciences departments and attract directly relevant occupiers as a result.
Skilled labour pool: The South East, says Colliers, contains the most technically skilled workforce in the UK and the report highlights the presence of Pfizer at Sandwich where ‘the quality of staff is a major advantage’. But the study is far less effusive about the quality of the workforce in Ashford, citing a lack of professional and technical jobs. Ashford, says Colliers, has fewer jobs in these sectors than Sittingbourne — home of the Kent Science Park. The number is also ‘significantly’ below the Kent average which already lags way behind Surrey and Hampshire.
And you can’t just expect to ship in qualified staff from outside, says Colliers. ‘Science parks need a local, well-educated, skilled workforce in order to build the environment that typifies a successful park. While local universities with strong R&D bias can help to provide much of the input, both on a technical level and in terms of human resources, a greater propensity towards skilled and technical occupations in the surrounding area is also of importance,’ the report adds before showing that these technical skills are things that Ashford so patently lacks.
Colliers is pretty scathing about the struggling Kent Science Park at Sittingbourne, pointing out that it is only 30 per cent full and blaming local opposition to plans to build new roads into the park. The report says that the park is one of the few in the UK without a direct affiliation with a university and that it will, in all likelihood, be downgraded from a science park to a ‘technology and knowledge-based cluster’. Indeed, Colliers says that of all the major science parks in and around London, just 30 per cent do not have a direct link with an adjacent university while only the Kent Science Park, Langstone and Harwell are not within immediate proximity to a major city.
The bad news for anybody thinking that a new road into Wye from the M20 will deliver the 12,500 jobs that Imperial has promised its local authority partners does not stop there. While Colliers says that ‘there has never been a better time to develop’, it explicitly warns that disconnection from the main university campus can mean a real struggle to make a science park succeed. It cites the Cambridge Research Park — one of six parks in and around the university city — and says that ‘while it has a dedicated link road to the A10, it lacks direct access to the M11 and its nearest regional rail connection is in Cambridge itself, some four miles distant. Equally, Stansted airport is over 30 miles away along the M11’.
Consequently, says Colliers, the Cambridge Research Park has some of the poorest occupancy levels among the 16 parks it analyses in its report. ‘Currently, only just over half of the space is occupied, primarily on account of disconnection from the main university campus,’ it adds.
For a report commissioned by an organisation that seems so intent on shutting its eyes to business realities, the Colliers study is a brutally honest assessment of the suitability of Wye as a centre of cutting-edge and commercial research. It clearly wasn’t what the doctor ordered at Imperial and was quickly buried, but its assessment of the poorly-skilled workforce in Ashford in particular and Kent in general is devastating news for those aspiring to make the area Europe’s R&D hub and will make very uncomfortable reading in the Civic Centre and at County Hall.