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Can Kent square the triangle?

May, 2024

When it comes to growth in life sciences, the Golden Triangle – the area between London, Oxford and Cambridge – continues to lead the way. However, news of the arrival of a Chinese pharmaceutical investment at Discovery Park leads Maxim’s Managing Director, Andrew Metcalf, to consider whether Kent could be well placed to square the triangle when it comes to alternative locations.

Asymchem Laboratories, based in Tianjin, has announced it will operate Pfizer UK’s former small molecule API pilot plant and part of the development laboratories at Discovery Park. This will be Asymchem’s first manufacturing footprint in Europe, to meet global demand for clinical small molecule development, manufacturing and supply.

When it comes to the Golden Triangle, it’s a case of success breeding success and we need Kent to enjoy that same level of commercial attractiveness. Demand for life science space in the triangle hit 925,000 sq ft last year – the highest annual volume since 2015, according to leading property agents, Cushman & Wakefield.
And the momentum has continued with take-up soaring in Q1, reaching 424,000 sq ft – the second highest total recorded in the past five years according to Savills and Knight Frank. Take-up hit 352,000 sq ft in Q4, more than double the level of activity in Q3. According to the same firm, with the only thing apparently constraining leasing activity being the shortage of supply in Cambridge. 
The development pipeline for life science space under construction in the area totals 3.1m sq ft, with 26% of this space pre-let or under offer. There is a further 5.7m sq ft of consented space.
One interesting example of how city centre development values has swung from retail uses towards mixed-use space, including life science laboratories and R&D space can be found in Cambridge. Pioneer Group, which also owns Kent Science Park near Sittingbourne, has secured planning permission to transform the Grafton Centre into a sustainable mixed-use scheme offering lab, retail and event space. Life science space will occupy five floors offering around 509,000 sq ft plus retail and leisure space. The result would be high-skilled city centre jobs helping to economically sustain Cambridge’s city centre economy.

What is the outlook for Kent’s life science offering?

When it comes to squaring the triangle, it’s not going to be easy. Discovery Park, our flagship science park, has made great strides in recent years but it is going to have to transition to a post-Pfizer world after the global pharmaceutical company announced it’s getting ready to downscale it operations at the Sandwich site. That said, Pfizer did announce it was leaving more than a decade ago and sold the site, only to retain a significant workforce on the site and make further investments. Let’s all hope history repeats itself.
It's great to see that once again Kent has risen to the challenge and set up a taskforce of the local authorities, universities and business representative organisations, and owners, to help plot a new course for Discovery Park. 
The other good news is Discovery Park’s lab and office space is of a high quality and thanks to the strength of the area’s work-life balance does offer life science companies a great place to make their home. So, while London and the triangle bring forward new space, there’s already space for immediate occupation, and skilled staff on tap, at Discovery Park. 
Kent Science Park, with the prospect of thousands of new agri-tech and science jobs, still appears years away from getting its new direct motorway junction and direct access to the M20, despite the best efforts of landowners and developers. That said, it has seen investment by its owners and tenants.
With lab rents rising, and staff costs and house prices also higher in the Golden Triangle than Kent, then Kent can play its cost-effective card. When that’s combined with the work life balance offered by the coastline and countryside, and the local schools and universities – then maybe we should all be a bit more confident when it comes to the outlook for our life science community.

Andrew Metcalf represents the county’s business community on the Kent & Medway Economic Partnership, and is Deputy Chair of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce.

Andrew Metcalf - Director

Andrew Metcalf

Maxim / Managing Director

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