"In this fast-evolving landscape, maintaining our reputation as global innovators will require strategic planning on the infrastructure needed to enable further innovation"
Over the last decade, the UK has established itself as a world leader in tech-driven innovation across a wide variety of disciplines. Across the next eight years, the UK is set to further cement its reputation as a science and technology superpower, with artificial intelligence, life sciences and engineering biology positioned as the key sectors to spearhead nationwide efforts in working towards this goal.
In this fast-evolving landscape, maintaining our reputation as global innovators will require strategic planning on the infrastructure needed to enable further innovation.
High-Tech and Innovation Hubs (HTIHs) have rightly found themselves in the spotlight following proposals outlined in the Spring Budget. The Government’s announcement that it will create 12 Investment Zones across the UK, backing each one with £80 million over five years, was a major boost for the HTIH sector.
The policy also followed other support streams from the Government, including the launch of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, set up to ensure the UK is the best place to start and grow a tech business. HTIHs are now getting the attention and investment they rightfully deserve.
HTIH’s are specifically designed with infrastructure and facilities to bring together researchers, innovators, and financiers; creating concentrated pockets ideally suited to nurture the latest ideas and support the development of new products and services.
Already, cities beyond the golden triangle such as Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh have seen approvals for major High Tech and Innovation developments. If better prioritised in the planning system, HTIHs at varying scales have the potential to be a critical tool in supporting wider levelling up policy and town centre regeneration, whether that is through large-scale projects such as Innovation Districts, or by repurposing town centre buildings in suitable locations.
Increased demand for lab space: a planning opportunity
Last year, 800,000 square feet of office and lab space was signed for in London, Oxford and Cambridge. Following the Government’s plans for Investment Zones, it is clear that demand for lab space is only going to increase, expanding across the rest of the UK. This is only one area of the growing opportunity presented by HTIHs.
To make the most of this opportunity, it is time for developers to look to town centres to find suitable space which can easily be repurposed into HTIHs. For example, investment firms Mission Street and BentallGreenOak bought a disused Bristol press office building last year, which has the ideal floor-to-height ratio required to be turned into a lab space.
Located at Number One Temple Way, it will be transformed into an R&D hub capable of supporting startups and new businesses with the city’s tech sector. Its close relationship to the city, Temple Quarter expansion, and education and health institutions make this an ideal location.
So that developers can capitalise on similar opportunities in future and meet Government demand for more lab space within the sector, it’s time we adapt our planning policy to explicitly recognise such uses and encourage the growth of HTIHs at the heart of our towns and cities.
To do so, NPPF policies must be flexible enough not only to address large-scale HTIHs such as Innovation Districts and campuses but to also outline key repurposing of smaller sites such as retail and industrial buildings, office space and warehouses, which are essential for supporting startups and small-to-medium businesses within the sector. The adaptability and evolution needed to accommodate this sector should be mirrored through an equally flexible policy framework nationally and locally.
Supporting employee wellbeing
Prioritising the needs of the people that use HTIHs should be a principal consideration for developers. The COVID-19 pandemic permanently changed the professional landscape, and it is vital that planning developments for HITHs adapt to these newly established ways of working.
Wellbeing and work-life balance are hugely important for employees and employers alike. Uniform ways of working are now a thing of the past, and not everyone in the sector can easily work from home. Consequently, there has been a renewed sense of focus on transforming work environments into genuinely pleasant places to be, which are easily accessible for all. There will be an expectation for HTIHs to be at the forefront of such thinking when developing schemes.
On a practical level, a high-quality HTIH development should include access to quality outdoor space, which boosts a sense of wellbeing amongst its users. It should also have expansive, open spaces which encourage collaboration and cooperation between team members and can be adapted over time to respond to workspace requirements.
By taking the time to deliver a high-quality working environment which is accessible to everyone, people working in HTIHs are given equal opportunities to thrive. Consequently, developers create an environment for inclusive growth, boosting the social value of HTIHs as well as stimulating further economic growth in their surrounding regions.
HTIHs are essential for unlocking long-term economic growth in the UK. The UK Government has already started to demonstrate its commitment to supporting HTIH and life sciences with the newly launched Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.
Having the right planning policy in place will give startups and new businesses the opportunity to take groundbreaking ideas from concept to reality. To do so, the NPPF will need to support the allocation of land in the correct places and at the right scale to create HTIHs with a range of uses and deliver levelling up.
Crucially, the same approach must be integrated into local planning policy. Ensuring local authorities have the right understanding, policy direction and skills on the ground to assess and support HTIHs will be critical to delivery across the UK. As the nation strives to achieve related net zero, sustainability and biodiversity goals, there will inevitably be a spotlight on forward-thinking, high-quality HTIH developments to address and balance these.
A more strategic and flexible approach to HTIH locations, together with prioritising accessible spaces with a focus on cooperation and work-life balance will help us to establish the UK as a science and tech superpower by 2030, in line with Government ambition.