UK needs more lab space if it wants to be science superpower, ministers told

The UK needs to build more laboratory space, improve transport links and offer more tax breaks to achieve Rishi Sunak’s ambition of becoming a science superpower, two leading property firms have argued ahead of the autumn statement.

Demand for laboratories in the UK is growing fast, with lab vacancy rates of just 1% in Cambridge and London, and 7% in Oxford, according to a report by British Land, one of Britain’s biggest property developers, and the upmarket estate agency and advisory firm Savills.

Across these areas, projects to construct 11.6m sq feet of labs are waiting for a planning decision or are in the pipeline and need to be speeded up.

Simon Carter, chief executive of British Land, said that despite demand, the UK was lagging well behind more mature US markets.

“Boston, San Francisco, San Diego and New York are home to 113m sq feet of laboratory space, over 20 times the equivalent space in the UK’s Golden Triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge,” he said.

Projects awaiting the green light include Oxpens in the centre of Oxford, expansion of university labs at West Cambridge and a site around the Royal London hospital in east London, while the government has halted contentious plans for a new life sciences hub in Royal Street in London, which included the demolition of two postwar buildings near Waterloo.

Construction is under way that will increase the supply of lab space by 5.2% a year in Oxford and Cambridge, compared with 8.9% a year in Boston, the report found.

If the life sciences hubs in Cambridge, Oxford and London kept up with their counterparts in the US, by 2035 there would be 67,000 more high-skilled, high-wage jobs, £4bn more economic output a year and £1.1bn extra tax revenue a year, the report said.

Completed projects include British Land’s Regent’s Place in central London, where tenants include Relation Therapeutics, which uses machine learning to aid drug discovery.

The developer also built modular labs in south London within nine months. On the other side of the Thames, Canary Wharf Group has voiced ambitions for a life sciences cluster, and has planning consent to build a 23-storey tower with 60% lab space, where it hopes to attract small biotech firms.

With the autumn statement on Wednesday expected to focus on manufacturing, science and investment, Carter has written to ministers and set out a five-point plan to help the UK life sciences sector to innovate and grow.

He urged government to set clear targets to expand economic output from Britain’s life sciences sector by at least a quarter, and to double the value of overseas investment by 2035.

The property firms are calling on the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to fully commit to building the new east-west rail line linking Oxford and Cambridge, as efficient transport links are vital to growth.

They also recommend the use of development corporations to speed up planning and delivery, and urged Hunt to expand research and development tax credits to include relief for capital expenditure on lab space.

Finally, they recommend that adult education and skills budgets should be devolved to create local, sector-specific training and employment programmes.


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