Harlow: a diamond set between London and Cambridge, UK

You could be forgiven for overlooking Harlow, UK, in the global scheme of things. But you would be mistaken. Any company with a med-tech, life sciences, data-centre, IT or advanced engineering raison d’être would do well to read on and discover what Andrew Bramidge, Project Director of Harlow Enterprise Zone has to say to Jo Murray about the Harlow Enterprise Zone.

Harlow is one of a handful of the UK’s post-WWII new towns. Built 70 years ago on the Essex/Hertfordshire border, Harlow was conceived to house London’s East End post-war population and provide sites for various industrial sectors. True it was built in a hurry, and yes it might have been planned better under less dramatic economic conditions, but thanks to the Enterprise Zone, Harlow is now growing into its promise as a future-facing conurbation housing both high technology sectors and the talent to support them.

It is fair to say that Harlow Enterprise Zone aims to do a lot. It is not labelled with an industry tag; rather its somewhat eponymous name simply locates the Enterprise Zone without revealing what is being nurtured therein. So, let’s discover what lies beneath the label.

The Enterprise Zone occupies three sites; the first two adjoining and the third an existing industrial park to the north of the town. First is Kao Park, named after Sir Charles Kao who we associate with the development of fibre optic cable on this very site in the 1960s. A data centre campus is being built here comprising 20,000m2 of office space and 32,000m2 of data centre facilities across four buildings. Given the local super broadband initiative and the level of expertise being employed, Mr Bramidge describes the Kao Park as exhibiting “complete resilience”.

Next is the Science Park; a 60,000m2 development which will incorporate: Anglia Ruskin University’s MedTech Campus; a MedTech Innovation Centre to house multi-nationals as well as start-ups and SMEs; and office and leisure facilities for those working here. To date, around 75% of the site is owned by Harlow Council and the rest will be under public ownership by the end of this year. “The council is making a huge investment,” says Mr Bramidge. “The Enterprise Zone is a major catalyst to transform the town.”

Mr Bramidge points to the Science Park’s location on the London/Stansted/Cambridge corridor, how it is situated within proximity of the Golden Triangle of the London/Cambridge/Oxford life sciences centre of excellence and its relationship with Med City (the life sciences sector of London and England’s greater south east). “We are part of the solution,” he says. “London and Cambridge are already congested while Harlow is both affordable and can cater for growth.”

He says that Anglia Ruskin University’s location on the Science Park will act as an anchor for the med-tech community that will occupy the site – which is already well underway. A development partner is on board and architects have already drawn up a masterplan which has been awarded planning consent.

The Science Park is very much just that. “The Science Park is for high-tech science-based companies,” says Mr Bramidge, adding that it will not compete with the nearby BioScience Catalyst over the county border in Hertfordshire. “They have a very specific remit based around open innovation in the bio-science field. We have to convince the market that this is a viable proposition in Harlow so we have to be quite broad. We will include companies across the life sciences sectors, advanced engineering and IT.”

The third site is that of Templefields. This site will see a phased redevelopment to create modern small-business work spaces over time. Compared with the other two sites, Templefields will receive a relatively light touch but there is definitely a vision to transform the area to attract a vibrant, hi-tech community. Whereas the Science Park had the complication of three different land-owners controlling the site; Templefields is owned by 40 different landowners. The problem is compounded by the fact that land values are low, occupancy rates are high and there is little incentive for the landowners to invest. All of this has to be taken into account in public planning for the site.

“Our objective is to raise land values so that the private sector will invest. We are doing this through the introduction of super-fast broadband and new access to the M11 motorway. This will have a transformative effect,” Mr Bramidge says.

Of course, Enterprise Zones usually come with a basket of incentives and Harlow Enterprise Zone is no different. Business rate discounts will be available to life sciences, IT and advanced engineering companies. But Mr Bramidge says that planning flexibility is proving to be more valuable to new tenants. Deemed planning consent means developments on the sites don’t require formal planning permission; this high-speed approach to developing the land and reducing red-tape is particularly attractive to overseas companies.

“One of the measures of success of Harlow Enterprise Zone is genuine growth driven by overseas investors,” says Mr Bramidge. “But we also want to provide opportunities for local companies who are expanding. We aim to prevent companies and jobs from leaving the area altogether.”

He explains that creating a high-tech ecosystem is particularly attractive to inward investors. “Being part of a science and technology community in which you can build relationships with like-minded companies and universities is vital,” he says, adding that North American life sciences companies are particularly being targeted with this message.

So, the stage has been set and the marketing messages been built. Property agents have been set to work and much of the groundwork has been laid. Site delivery is taking place from now across the next three years. The aim? To secure thousands of high quality jobs across the 72 acres, with a massive contribution to economic growth and enhanced export potential.