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'Science Cities' - Building homes and workspace for the future 'Silicon Fen'

Above: second panel discussion at 'Science Cities' Cambridge with (from left) Matt Johnson Head of North West Cambridge -The Property Board, Cambridge University, Matt Sampson, Regeneration Director at The Crown Estate, Cllr Brian Milnes, Deputy Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Heather Fearfield, Co-founder, Future Cities Forum, Matt Fitter, Investor and Developer Lead - Life Sciences at JLL, and Eugene Sayers, Partner and Head of Science at Sheppard Robson

Future Cities Forum's second panel discussion at 'Science Cities' Cambridge asked the question on how high quality housing and workspace could be delivered across the city and county against a backdrop of water shortages, transport constraints and lack of sustainable energy supplies?

The UK government is urging councils in the Cambridge city region to embrace change and development in order to create a 'home grown' Silicon Fen, which requires a dramatic increase in housing. The building of some 150,000 homes by 2040 is the current ask of Michael Gove, the Secretary for Housing and Levelling Up, while the Environment Agency has advised against more housing due to the shortage of water.

Cllr Brian Milnes, Deputy Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council (Portfolio holder for the Environment) stated to the audience that the situation is currently very challenging:

'Transport is just one of the many constraints that we face. I am a member of the Greater Cambridge Partnership and we have received a million pounds of government funding to support the 'Cambridge phenomenon' and we have been growing at a tremendous rate. In 2021, South Cambridgeshire's growth was put at 10% which is very large. The scale of development that the government wants would double the size of Cambridge. We are waiting to hear from Gove where all these houses that he says are required will be built. There is speculation about where that might be, but he has said that Cambridge is a special circumstance in terms of being allowed to build on green belt, where as the rest of the UK's green belt is sacrosanct.'

Cllr Milnes was then asked what could be done about the water issue around building these new homes:

'We see the storm effects, floods and droughts and we need to create the balance between the needs of agriculture in this region and residential requirements. The Environment Agency is getting more involved. We have one of the driest regions in the country and are dealing with the effects of climate change. We need more reservoirs and farmers need to create their own reservoirs. In terms of the capacity of the region, we are ten years behind where we should be. Water companies have not re-invested in reservoirs. We are barely getting to what is required in the current Local Plan, let alone future demands.'

In term of constraints on electricity supply, Cllr Milnes stated:

'Unfortunately, we have a system that is based on one way from generators to the consumer and we need a new model - which is in hand - in order to charge our cars, manage heat source pumps. But there is a lack of long term planning. Infrastructure issues are national issues, not just something for a local planning authority where we don't have the authority over it. We cannot retrofit what should have been done years ago. Local power networks were not able to predict local demand. We have now put a business case together for expansion and Ofgem says we can move forward, but we are waiting to hear feedback from Gove on the demand and situation for our future.'

Above: aerial view of North West Cambridge (courtesy The University of Cambridge)

Above: Housing at Eddington, Cambridge University's North West Cambridge award-winning development (courtesy Mecanoo Architects)

The appropriate provision of housing for 'science cities' was a key topic of discussion at the forum. The University of Cambridge's housing development at Eddington has been talked of as the poster child for the successful building of homes. Matt Johnson, Head of North West Cambridge - The Property Board, Cambridge University, spoke of the importance of long term investment for talent attraction:

'The idea of Eddington came about as a solution to address housing cost issues. The average cost of housing in Cambridge we discovered was seven times average earnings. The University saw it as a problem. The motivation was to build and retain fifty per cent of it, so it's investment for the long term. We saw this as a way we could attract the best talent from around the world along with the place-making aspects of the development.

'We often invite people to come along and see the development as there are lots of learnings from it and it has created positive change. However it cannot be rolled out to every corner of the city. We asked specifically for the university what kind of unit types we needed. The answer came in being able to house key workers in one or two bed homes with shared units as well as these types of spaces for the international academic who might be fleet of foot and younger and not interested in a three bed house, but seeing it as a stop gap. Central planning does see building homes that people can stay in longer and grow a family, but that is not our vision.'

The University of Cambridge has described its development:

'The vision for Eddington is to create a place that is sustainable, long-lasting and ambitious, offering a high quality of life to enhance both the City and University of Cambridge. The University is one of the world’s leading universities, but it must continue to develop and grow, and needs to address the lack of affordable accommodation for its staff and post-graduate students.

'The development will ultimately include: 1,500 homes for University and College staff; 1,500 private houses for sale; Accommodation for 2,000 postgraduates; 100,000 sq/m of academic and research and development space of which up to 40% may be private research with University connection or Research Institutes; Community facilities including the University of Cambridge Primary School, Storey’s Field Centre, health centre, Sainsbury’s supermarket and local shops; A hotel; A care village; Sustainable transport provision including cycle ways; Sports facilities and playing fields; and public open spaces.'

Above: artistic impression of the Cambridge Business Park, in North East Cambridge (courtesy The Crown Estate)

Providing convenient and high quality workspace was another topic on the panel with views from Matt Sampson, Regeneration Director, The Crown Estate, on how to achieve inclusivity through design:

'We have so much ambition for Cambridge Business Park as part of the emerging innovation area in north east Cambridge. It is in a very good location between the new station and science park but is currently a 1980's car-dominated work space. We want to blur the edges and get rid of a lot of the fencing which can be forbidding.

'Inclusivity is very important and on the agenda and we want it to be a nice place for a diverse range of people to work in. It will be transformed over the next twenty year and we are just starting with the physical nature of the site, breaking down the barriers to residential and opening up the permeability, so those diverse communities can have access.

'We also want 'science on show' as British Land are doing in Euston, and we also want to encourage skills training. We are working closely with our district partners and think the development around Hartree with 6,000 homes and connectivity will work well. There will be new schools and nurseries on site, so much more suitable for a wide range of people to come to.'

Cambridge Business Park comprises 12 modern office/technology buildings, amounting to 325,000 square feet. The park has unrestricted business use. It is home to over 17 tenants including Redgate, Price Bailey, 1Spatial, the BBC and Qualcomm amongst others, and is located in the popular Northern Cambridge Cluster, adjacent to the A14.

The Crown Estate describes its vision:

'We're driven by our clear purpose of creating lasting and shared prosperity for the nation. By drawing on our values, we aim to address the nation’s needs where our unique combination of strengths mean we are best placed to make a difference. Our focus is on long-term, structural challenges facing the country today -

  • Being a leader in supporting the UK towards a net zero carbon and energy-secure future

  • Creating inclusive communities and through our activities supporting economic growth and productivity

  • Taking a leading role in stewarding the UK’s natural environment and biodiversity

  • 'Our unique set up, established through an Act of Parliament to operate independently and commercially, means that there is nothing else quite like us. We have a unique combination of strengths that means we can bring people together to make a difference.

'Our strategy will help deliver ambitious long-term national outcomes, creating financial, environmental and social value for the nation for now and for future generations.'

Above: artist's impression of Melbourn Science Park master-plan - image courtesy of Sheppard Robson

The discussion turned to the key factors that make science parks sustainable today for communities. Eugene Sayers, Partner at Sheppard Robson, talked about the importance of the village green in science park development:

'It's a great moment to be working in the area of science park development. At Sheppard Robson we are working with different drivers like Defra, UCL and the private developer. The design of lab space is now touching much more on how people want to live and work and social issues like diversity and inclusion are very important.

'The 'village green' in one of the recurring themes and we have designed this into the Melbourn Science Park, which again was a classic 1980's park with a small domestic building and large central park. The developer Bruntwood wanted to open it up to the village nearby, so that the central landscape became part of an amenity for the village. This kind of big labelling gesture is something that our clients need to think about and engage with through their neighbours.

Sheppard Robson has described the project:

'The £250m masterplan for the campus of nine buildings – which includes offices, science facilities, a hotel and extensive landscaping – integrates cutting-edge facilities within the village of Melbourn near Cambridge. Sheppard Robson's designs will create 390,000sqft of world-class laboratory and office workspace for approximately 75 life science and tech businesses, including new coworking space for start-up businesses, along with improvements to the facilities and amenities on the campus for both businesses based there and the local Melbourn community.

'A new event space will include breakout space, showers, lockers and sports kit drying rooms. Transport provision will be improved with a mobility hub featuring a large secure cycle store with repair and maintenance stations, cycle hire, and a car park with electric vehicle charging points. A new 18-bedroom hotel and a gastro pub are also planned.

'Designs are targeting net zero carbon in construction and operation following a transformation project that will retain as much of the existing fabric of the Park’s buildings as possible. 3,450 tonnes of embodied carbon, the amount of carbon emitted during construction, will be saved by linking the heating and cooling network between the buildings in a state-of-the-art fourth-generation heat network connected to all-electric air source heat pumps.

'The Park will be 100% electric, targeting EPC A Ratings across its buildings, and 600sqm of solar panels will be installed across the Park’s roof space. Blue-green roofs will be installed on five of the new buildings, with an approximate size of almost 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools, to ensure water drainage is sustainable and to support the campus’ biodiversity.'

The question of designing a unique brand into different science parks to attract international notice and talent attraction was put to Eugene:

'That's a really interesting question. There are differences between the science parks but I guess from a long way away that awareness of the subtle differences might not be there. What we do is focus on the quality of space and they are beautiful spaces that enable us in the UK to compete with those science campuses in New York for instance. But we need collaboration with local government to make sure that there is a bigger picture.

Eugene was also asked about whether the out of town science park was having to compete hard with the in-town converted retail science spaces:

'Out of town science and business parks have been in trouble but they are now taking action. They use to rely on the fact that they could offer a car parking space right by the front door, but that is now history. Commercial shopping centres can be good options for development in the science space area as they have big loading bays and we are looking at a number of solutions to developing these kinds of spaces. I think we can make them work and that is where we can be creative in our designs.'

Matt Fitter, Investor and Developer Lead for Life Sciences at JLL concluded the panel, advising whether the right type of science parks were being developed for interested occupiers:

'I work with investors across London, Cambridge and Oxford. There is definitely room for both in and out of town. We work with investors who want to have exposure to both. Firms may want different locations at different stages of development and science. When they need a larger workforce, more equipment, and lower rents they may want out of town. However, there have been out of town parks that are uninspiring, but there are plans to improve them. It's about choice where to live. Some people want to be living next to work, but maybe not later on in their careers.

'Europe had the worst gap on record last year between housing requirements and delivery - with a one million home shortage. London statistics for 2023 include residential completions down 37%, and sales down 40%, and 74% less buildings, so whatever the tenure we have an issue. I think diversity of product is important.

Matt continued to comment on the 'right fit' of housing for the science sector:

'The single family rental model is exciting as shown at Eddington Cambridge. This piece is dealing with some of the challenges created in the rental market since the government has demonised private landlords. A mix of on-site provision, including retirement homes, as at Hartree is important, and delivering housing close to transport hubs.'


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