UK must unleash tech and life sciences sectors to advance position as global leader

Out-Law Analysis | 05 Jul 2022 | 8:00 pm | 2 min. read

Ministers must unshackle the UK’s tech and life sciences sector from a largely inefficient planning system if they are to advance the country’s position as a global leader.

The life sciences industry supports more than 250,000 jobs in the UK and adds well over £70 billion to the economy each year. As attendees at EG’s London conference “Creating a Scientific Superpower” heard earlier this week, UK universities and scientists are widely regarded as some of the best in the world, making the nation an attractive location for international investment. 

The UK industry proved its potential during the Covid-19 pandemic and played a pivotal role in the international response. It was, after all, a collaboration between Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and the private firm Vaccitech that, astonishingly, managed to produce a clinical trial-ready vaccine in February 2020 – a month before the global outbreak was even declared a pandemic.

That kind of scientific innovation, demonstrable across the UK, is the reason why more than £20bn of global capital is earmarked for new office space and laboratories in the science and technology sectors. But even as international investors line up to support our life sciences industry, we face challenges that could throttle its growth.

Planning and real estate

One key issue is the UK’s planning system, which, when compared with zoning systems in rival countries like the US, Israel and China, can be slow and inflexible. Consistent delay from planning authorities means demand for high quality research and development space in the UK is outstripping supply many times over. Across Oxford and Cambridge, for example, there is currently no new lab space available at scale, despite demand for ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ labs reaching 1.7 million sq ft last year. 

The issue is only projected to get worse. According to the findings of Bidwells’ Life Sciences 2030 report, shortages across the sector are likely to deepen in the next decade as firms seek out more specialised research space with integrated technologies like AI, robotics and automation. The life sciences sector needs the government to be more interventionist, taking brave decisions in the national interest where global competitiveness is at stake.

The chronic lack of available space is part of a growing case for the creation of an innovation-focused use class that allows for a targeted and more flexible approach to land use classification. Such a move would recognise that other existing use classes are too broad for specialised life sciences research – and unique user specific classifications are too prescriptive.

Officials should also encourage international investment outside of the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London. While global capital has naturally focused on these tried and tested locations, the government needs to support the Oxford-Cambridge Arc area as a whole  – as well as the very significant opportunities in other parts of the UK, like Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow.

Facilitating collaboration

Effective collaboration between stakeholders in the life sciences sector has always been key. It is clear that the future of life sciences in the UK will involve an increasingly diverse range of stakeholders including, for example, tech companies, and opportunities for companies that might traditionally have been perceived to be competitors to work together. Different models of collaboration are increasingly reflecting earlier engagement of parties and a more dynamic approach to the traditional two party, one asset model.

An efficient planning system which facilitates projects like the Wellcome Genome Campus is an important enabler of further collaboration. Such projects further enhance connectivity vital for collaboration but also for attracting and retaining the talent needed to unleash the sectors full potential.

We are making progress, but more can be done. Ministers need to consider practical planning system reform and support the cluster hubs growing around several of the UK’s research-focused universities. The UK’s life sciences industries contribute hugely to our economy and is helping to deliver revolutionary health benefits for all. It is crucial that we enable it to thrive. 

A version of this article was first published in Estates Gazette.