Prescott rules on bio-tech cluster future

August 13, 1999

The future expansion of some of the most prestigious laboratories in the Cambridge high-tech cluster will be decided in the next few weeks by environment secretary John Prescott.

The announcements will end disputes with local planners that have threatened to upset the growth of biotechnology in a region government has identified as of central importance in the emerging field.

Opponents who want to protect the rural environment, have called for the developments - which are all within the green belt - to be restricted to designated areas with the infrastructure to support such projects.

The most significant and controversial scheme is the 40,000 square metres expansion of the Wellcome Trust's genome research campus at Hinxton, south of Cambridge. More modest plans for a 26,000 square metres development at the Babraham Institute, a centre for post-genomic research, and 4,000 square metres by the Generics Group at Harston are also being considered.

All three proposals were originally rejected by South Cambridgeshire district council. Two also lost appeals, although the Babraham proposal has subsequently won local support. Mr Prescott's final rulings on all the cases are expected imminently.

These are likely to be influenced by the government's enthusiasm for biotechnology and its concern to encourage enterprise and innovation.

Sir Alec Broers, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, has spoken out in support of the expansion of the region's science base beyond academia and is a leading player in the region's bid to attract high-tech companies.

The university's West Cambridge expansion scheme, which will include the Microsoft's European research laboratory, is days away from a final legal agreement with Cambridge city council. The deal will see new buildings for science and technology departments built on green belt land on the city outskirts despite opposition from many local people, including a number of university academics.

The Wellcome Trust plans to double the size of its genome research campus at Hinxton, which includes the Sanger Centre where part of the human genetic blueprint is being decoded. Spin-off companies could be established to exploit genetic research.

Michael Morgan, chief executive of the genome campus, said rejection of the expansion plan would be a national disaster, handing over Britain's leading role in biotechnology to foreign competitors. "Please don't put this at risk because of local transport considerations, which we believe can be solved sensibly through our latest proposals," he pleaded.

It is an argument that has not impressed the likes of Robin Driver, a district and county councillor who lives in a village near to the campus and believes the scheme could be relocated to a science park several miles away.

"We are not being nimby about science and technology but this massive expansion would ruin the rural environment and we have other sites specifically designed to cope with the growth in research and development," he said.

The Babraham Institute's expansion plans are similar to the Wellcome Trust's in that space was sought for spin-off companies to exploit their research identifying the function of genes.

In addition, the British Biology and Biological Sciences Research Council funded post-genomic research institute wants a new facility for transgenic mice on the same site. It was rejected by planners at the same meeting in November 1997 that also threw out the Wellcome Trust's scheme. But after lengthy negotiations its critics have been won over and it is widely expected to be approved by Mr Prescott.

The Generics Group, scientific consultants who are involved a wide range of bioscience and technology projects, is also waiting on Mr Prescott's verdict on its rejected proposal for an expansion of its existing facilities.

Pauline Pitcher, a spokeswoman for Generics, said: "If development is stifled there's the danger that some companies will just leave Cambridge, maybe even the country. Good business development needs encouraging."

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