A Wellcome home?

April 23, 1999

A bitter battle is being fought in Cambridge over plans to expand the Wellcome Trust's genome research centre. Kam Patel looks at the possible outcomes and the messages they will send

In a few months time, environment secretary John Prescott will decide whether to give the Wellcome Trust - the United Kingdom's biggest research charity - planning permission to double the size of its genome research centre near Cambridge.

The decision may bring to a close the battle between South Cambridgeshire District Council and the trust that began last year when the charity first proposed the Pounds 100 million development. Objections by the local council, which fears the scale of the development will damage the rural environment, led to a public inquiry that resulted in Wellcome's application being rejected. But Prescott held the door open, offering the trust the chance to come up with a better justification for the scale of its expansion. Armed with voluminous files of evidence, Wellcome launched its appeal last month through a second inquiry. The council, meanwhile, has stuck by its guns, insisting the planned development is "unsustainable".

The impasse over the proposal might seem like the normal fare of planning disputes up and down the country. But powerful undercurrents are flowing around this particular case, which could trigger far-reaching changes in the way decisions about land development are made across the UK.

These undercurrents all work in favour of Wellcome. The government, for instance, is pushing biotechnology and is committed to doing as much as it can to encourage the development of this "sunrise" industry. With UK researchers in the field among the best in the world and new commercial ventures in the sector mushrooming, the government and the sector believe Britain is well placed to take advantage of the growth predicted for the industry in the 21st century.

Then there is the Department of Trade and Industry's recent competitiveness white paper, with its emphasis on enterprise and innovation, stronger university-industry links, and the development of "clusters" of high-tech companies - especially in biotechnology.

And when Prescott comes to make the big decision, he is also likely to bear in mind a recent McKinsey report, Driving Productivity and Growth in the UK. The management consultants' study sought to find out why, despite all that has been done in recent decades to improve productivity, Britain still continues to lag behind competitors such as Germany, France and the United States. McKinsey found several reasons for this state of affairs, but one of the "most pervasive explanations" lies in the effect of regulations governing land use. In some cases, McKinsey said, these regulations constrained competition by limiting the ability of best practice operators to enter or expand, which in turn reduces the competitive pressure on other industry participants to raise their productivity.

Planning regulations have even constrained the growth of new high-technology sectors of the information-technology industry. "International experience indicates that these sectors benefit from the clustering together of many small entrepreneurial ventures, as in Silicon Valley. But the development of such clusters around Oxford, Cambridge and other natural communities has been slowed or prevented by local planning restrictions," McKinsey said.

The report calls for a "comprehensive reform" of land-use regulations. "Piecemeal reform will prove inadequate. What is needed is a new regulatory framework that finds a balance between economic and social objectives. That means either meeting the same social objective at lower cost, or making new social and economic trade-offs."

The McKinsey report has attracted considerable interest in government, not least at the Treasury. Chancellor Gordon Brown cites it frequently. It is a fair bet that Prescott will take a close look at the report before making his decision on Wellcome's proposal. If Prescott does give the go-ahead, it is likely to set a precedent that will eventually result in the wholesale reform of the regulatory framework that governs land use.

Wellcome knows there is no guarantee of a go-ahead but, understandably, is drawing succour from the favourable winds blowing in support of the proposal. Paul Clarke, Wellcome's property investment manager, said: "We feel we are doing everything the government wants. We believe we have made our case strongly. But it has to be remembered this is a new industry we are creating - it is difficult to find role models for the kind of development we want to see take place."

Set in 22 hectares of landscaped parkland, Wellcome's Genome Campus is home to several world-leading facilities for genomic research. They include: the Sanger Centre, one of the world's most productive genome sequence centres; the Medical Research Council's UK Human Genome Mapping Project; and the European Bioinformatics Institute, an out-station of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory providing electronic access to DNA sequences. There is also a conference facility that includes Hinxton Hall, a grade II listed building dating back to 1748.

The trust's proposal is to expand by 40,000 square metres. The Pounds 100 million scheme is needed, it says, to help commercialise the research that takes place at the campus through the launch of spin-off companies and attracting other new, small privately established biotechnology firms whose interests match those of the researchers at the site. The charity is keen to allay any concerns in government or at South Cambridgeshire District Council that the proposal is a commercial development dressed up in "charity speak". Clarke said: "No commercial developer would undertake such a scheme. We are not engaging in some property investment here. What we can do is assure the local voters that the trust is a long-term player that is after quality development. People living in rural areas do not want to see their rural idyll ruined and neither do we."

Michael Morgan, chief executive of the campus, said that unlike a conventional business or science park, market forces would not be the primary driver.

"The trust will choose new tenants based on assessment of mutual benefits. The design is a new concept for a single integrated research campus that specialises in one area of science."

With hindsight, Morgan believes the trust "probably failed" at the first public inquiry last year to get across its message that the scheme was not a commercial development. "It is a scheme that promotes the trust's objectives. We would not want the secretary of state to look at it as a property investment."

Giving evidence at last month's inquiry, Morgan argued that only by incubating and growing new companies that are intimately connected with the campus will the research carried out there be effectively and efficiently exploited for the benefit of society. He said: "Without a growing, strong and successful genomics industry, the fruits of the Sanger Centre's work, for instance, will be lost to the UK. Drugs, medicines and therapies will not be produced or developed here."

The trust's proposal, he maintains, is fully in accord with and would "significantly bolster" government aims set out in the competitiveness white paper.

Morgan warned that if planning permission was not granted for the extension, there would be "severe detriment to the ability of the campus to remain competitive I and severe harm to the UK's leading role in world genomics will result."

The trust, he points out, has been able to secure support from such pharmaceuticals heavyweights as SmithKline Beecham, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and smaller but highly regarded concerns such as the biotechnology firm Amgen, and bioinformatics specialist Oxford Molecular.

The council, meanwhile, remains unimpressed with the trust's arguments. Gareth Jones, the council's deputy planning director, believes that at last month's inquiry the council was able to demonstrate that the "commercial exploitation required (by the trust) could be achieved through the range of permitted business parks, which are much better located in relation to existing and planned population centres".

At the inquiry, Jones maintained that the scale of development in the Cambridge area necessary to generate a critical mass of growth, collaboration, competition and opportunities for investment is not dependent upon the trust's proposal. Rather, this is already taking place thanks to the council's own development plan for the area. "I remain convinced that the council's approach is correct. The site is an unsustainable location I the range of alternative sites are well suited to meeting the needs of the biotechnology industry," he said.

But Clarke retorted: "There might be plenty of space and buildings around, but in no way does it offer what we would like to create, not only in terms of close proximity to top-notch academic researchers, but also in equipment and resources."

Indeed, the trust has not even considered alternative sites: "We have such a fundamental belief in this proposal I it would be bitterly disappointing if it did not get the go-ahead. It would be retrograde step for UK plc and an injustice for an industry that could be the world leader in the field," Clarke said.

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