13 April 2022

Our awful planning laws risk squeezing the life science out of Britain

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We’re used to railing against the iniquities of the planning system on these pages, more often than not when it comes to new homes being scrapped for some pathetic reason like the need to save a car park (or, indeed, a marginal Tory MP).

Just last week we had the bizarre spectacle of the Lib Dem MP for St Albans, Daisy Cooper, tearing into the Government for not lowering the housing target for her patch. Meanwhile young people are stuck in a vicious circle of not being able to afford a deposit on a house because their rent is so insanely high. 

But it’s not just the hugely damaging effects on housing affordability (and its many knock-on effects). Our clunky, unresponsive planning system is also holding back Britain’s progress as a world leader in life sciences.

The problem is space – or rather, space on which we can build new facilities, particularly for growing start-ups.

The Times reports that in Cambridge – one corner of the ‘Golden Triangle’ of research excellence, along with Oxford and London – there is literally no lab space left. To the surprise of absolutely no one who takes an interest in these matters, ‘developers have placed much of the blame on the slow planning process which has limited supply’.

And it’s not just Cambridge that is running out of the lab space the industry needs. It’s a similar story in London, where a MedCity report in autumn of last year found ‘the availability of suitable lab and office space is already at all-time lows’. And companies need that space quickly: of the 500,000 square foot of demand for life sciences real estate in the capital, over half is needed within the next two years. To give you an idea of how demand has surged, that figure has gone from 67,000 square feet in 2016 to 270,000 square feet today. 

In a way, we are the victims of our own success. Such is the quality, depth and innovative prowess of British life science companies, there has been a flood of new investment. Indeed, one of the few silver linings of the pandemic was that people saw just how world-beating British pharmaceutical science is, not just in terms of developing vaccines, but in the genome sequencing that helped identify new variants in lightning quick time.

The numbers bear this story out. From 2020 to 2021, investment in UK life sciences rose from £2.8bn to £4.5bn, and construction companies involved in the sector estimate that there’s £20bn of cash waiting to be sunk into UK life sciences real estate. 

It’s a particular problem for start-ups: the MedCity report says that early-stage firms cite a ‘lack of ready available property made fit for purpose, cost effectively and in locations that optimise their success as a primary barrier to growth’.  And while it is possible to convert some of our existing commercial space into premises for life science companies, most of them now need sophisticated, purpose-built laboratory facilities, which means – horror of horrors – building them.

There’s a deeper political question here too. You would think that loosening up planning regulations so that expensive places like Oxford and Cambridge can attract the people they need, and businesses can get the space they need to expand would be a no-brainer.

It faces two-pronged political opposition, however. First, from the traditional forces of well-heeled Nimbyism, which marshalled themselves extremely effectively to shut down the Ox-Cam arc.

Second, that in the ‘levelling up’ era, the idea that we should be maxing out economic growth or building homes in the south-east is deeply unfashionable. Those regions are already doing very nicely, thank you, so we ought to concentrate our energies on parts of the country that aren’t sprinkled with science parks and expensive housing. There’s a perfectly noble sentiment behind that, but given the parlous state of the economy, we really ought to be making the most of the world-class assets we already have.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.