Birthplace of fibre optics set to recapture former glories

Holding a place in the history books as the location of the discovery of fibre optics, Harlow in Essex has a long-standing reputation as a hub for science and innovation.

Harlow Science Park

The demise of one of the town’s biggest tech occupiers in 2009 dealt it a huge blow, but it is hoped new developments including a proposed 750,000 sq ft science park on an area of land recently granted enterprise zone status can help reverse the damage.

So what progress is being made? In 1963, prime minister Harold Wilson memorably promised a new Britain forged in “the white heat of technology”. As he spoke, a team of scientists at the Standard Telecommunication Laboratories lab in Harlow, led by Charles Kao, was doing precisely that.

Kao had discovered that data could be transmitted through cables using light rather than electricity and his findings, published in 1966, led to the development of fibre optics. Over the ensuing half-century Kao’s invention revolutionised communications worldwide and he was eventually rewarded with a knighthood and the Nobel Prize for physics.

Sadly there is a long history of British companies failing to take full commercial advantage of their inventions. Sure enough, Standard was taken over by Canada-based Northern Telecom (Nortel) in 1991 and in 2009 the company was declared bankrupt, becoming one of the biggest non-banking victims of the global financial crisis, and the Harlow site was closed overnight.

“The Nortel closure was horrendous for the town,” remembers Harlow council’s project director Andrew Bramidge. “Nortel had 2,500 people there before closing and people had worked there for generations.”

Nortel had not been the only source of scientific jobs in Harlow – pharma giants Merck and GSK and defence contractor Raytheon also had major R&D facilities in the town – and the local authority was keen to maintain the skills base that Nortel had created.

Harlow Science Park

In 2011, the Nortel site and 37 acres of disused playing fields to its north were given enterprise zone status.

In a bid to bring about development, Harlow council bought in the disparate land ownerships and now, in partnership with Essex County Council, it is doubling down on its investment by funding the infrastructure to prepare the site, including a new junction off the A414 and a spine road through the Harlow Enterprise Zone site. This has been made possible by a tax increment financing-type structure that allows councils to borrow to fund investment with the loan to be repaid out of future rates revenue from the completed redevelopment.

At the same time, the Department for Transport is building the new junction 7a on the M11 close to the site. When it opens in 2021, it will improve access to the emerging business district while relieving congestion at the existing Harlow exit.

Already most of the jobs lost through Nortel’s demise have been replaced. Its former site has been renamed Kao Park and 200,000 sq ft of former office space has been refurbished to grade-A standard and is already 80% let to Raytheon, Arrow Electronics and Pearson.

The old laboratory buildings have been demolished and construction is under way on a range of data centres, taking advantage of the fact that – fittingly for the birthplace of fibre optics – the site’s data connectivity, both in terms of capacity and speed, is viewed to be excellent.

Now attention is turning to the second phase of the project, to be built on green-belt land, which has been branded Harlow Science Park. Harlow council selected a consortium made up of construction giant Vinci and Palmer Capital-backed Wrenbridge Land to bring forward the scheme. “We chose the consortium because of Vinci’s experience of major projects – this will be 750,000 sq ft – as well as Palmer Capital’s financial strength and Wrenbridge’s development expertise,” says Bramidge.

Aiming for excellence

The first phase of Harlow Science Park, consisting of two buildings, is expected to break ground next year. The first is a 30,000 sq ft three-storey speculative office building that has been funded by Harlow council. To set the tone for the rest of the scheme, it is aiming for a BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) Excellent rating.

“There will be no other building like this north of the M25,” says Wrenbridge director Chris White. He points out that with permitted development rights having a major impact on availability of office stock in north London and driving rents sky high, the building will also have a big cost advantage. “We’ll be pricing it sensibly so in terms of value for money it’ll be incredibly competitive,” he says.

Harlow Science Park

The building will be divisible into individual floors from 7,500 sq ft or suites from 2,500 sq ft. Agents Bidwells, Strettons and Derrick Wade Waters report that early interest is coming not just from science-based operations but also increasingly from lawyers and accountants wanting to collocate alongside a cluster of businesses from the technology, media and telecommunications sector.

The second building will be the MedTech Innovation Centre, a 15,000 sq ft research facility for Anglia Ruskin University. The university has had a presence in Harlow for the past 10 years through its relationship with Harlow College and it has a strong track record in medical R&D at its Chelmsford site, where it prototypes medical devices. The MedTech Innovation Centre is designed to be sublet in small units to start-up companies and postgraduates, offering an affordable base for R&D that could rapidly grow into something bigger.

Aideen McCambridge, manager of the university’s Business Innovation Centre for Medical and Advanced Engineering, explains: “Harlow is the perfect location for this scheme due to its connectivity, large workforce and the commitment of many companies to entrepreneurship and innovation.”

According to Wrenbridge’s White, the first phase of development will also include amenities such as cafés, children’s nurseries and hotels, which he says are key to creating a successful park. Beyond that, the masterplan is flexible. “We can deliver anything,” White says.

As for demand for future phases, White points out that big pharma companies are increasingly outsourcing their R&D. “We see contract research companies as a big potential occupier base,” he says.

 

Author: Simon Creasey

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