Above: Glasshouse at Alderley Park
2019 will be the year UK office spaces get scientific. Not in the sense that designers get clever about particulate and chemical pollution (although they will) or because of Internet-of-Things linked mechanical and electrical systems (although they will). No, offices will get scientific in the sense that science will get done inside them. David Thame explores.
Until now it is the tech sector that has lead the way in the transition from boring old cellular office floorspace into super-cool light-touch hipster-enabled work hubs. But in the coming year hard science will make its breakthrough in many more of the UK’s city centre and city fringe office markets, and when it does a new venture backed by Legal & General will be there to take the lead.
Bruntwood SciTech was formed last year after a £360 million funding deal between Manchesterbased landlord Bruntwood and Legal & General Capital.
Nationwide, the new science and technology development platform, will grow Bruntwood’s portfolio from around 1.3 million sq ft today to 6.2 million sq ft in the next 10 years.
The deal, which will create a £1.8 billion portfolio and represents the largest investment made in science and technology property assets in Europe, will pay particular dividends for Bruntwood’s home town.
Above: Phil Kemp, Managing Director, Brentwood SciTech
Now, according to SciTech Chief Executive Phil Kemp, they are planning to use Birmingham as a springboard for a nationwide expansion. Significantly, it is an expansion in which they currently have no UK rivals.
Some US operators, already practised in the sector, are known to be watching the UK but have so far sat on their hands. Until they move, Bruntwood is in command – and enjoying a first-mover advantage could be a massive plus in what everyone expects to be a rapidly-expanding market for city centre science space.
‘In the first instance we want to be in the cities where we already have a base – so Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool. But anywhere where there is a strong research university is of interest to us,’ Phil says.
‘L&G Capital’s ambitions extend across the UK. It’s not going to happen immediately but, over time and through our partnership, we will look as far north as Edinburgh and Glasgow and as far south as Bristol. L&G Capital are already active in Newcastle with Newcastle Helix.’
Phil said it is early days outside the Bruntwood heartlands of Birmingham and Manchester, but exploratory work is already underway. Bruntwood is likely to follow into areas where either it, or its partners, already have strong interests. L&G’s three investment areas are housing as a whole, infrastructure, including green energy, and SME finance, with a strong focus on modular housing, which it is exploring in the same university-town markets. These are exactly the interests and locations that produce synergies with the SciTech property offer, Phil says.
‘We would be looking to have conversations in these cities – and actually L&G Capital may already be doing so. Its commitment and focus is broader than science and technology so they are in a wider dialogue. L&G Capital is involved with affordable housing and one of its partnerships is focused on modular housing in Leeds. It comes back to why it is the right partner for Bruntwood as a group because it cares about regeneration issues in our cities – and doing something about it.’
Above: Alderley Park, Cheshire
This will mean taking lessons learned in Manchester and applying them first in Birmingham, and then elsewhere.
‘It is the partnership approach in Manchester that we are looking to replicate – working with city councils, universities and NHS hospital trusts in other cities/locations,’ he continues.
‘What we are doing with Bruntwood SciTech is taking what we have learned over the last 15 years in Manchester – which started with the initial purchase of Manchester Technology Centre. In terms of our history, that was the start. So what we have learned in Manchester in terms of our partnership with the city council, the two universities and the NHS hospital trust, we aim to replicate with a similar partnership approach in other cities.’
Phil is a big hitter with a strong background in the customer services end of the spectrum of business skills. He was formerly with serviced office giant Regus as Managing Director, Formats, and before that held a number of senior roles in the services, device and infrastructure divisions of Nokia, including being VP of the services business in China from 2010-2012.
Birmingham will be the first big test of SciTech. Phil faces the complexities of melding the city council, the health service and several universities into a single team capable of delivering a new knowledge corridor.
They also have the trickier problem of winning control of the relevant sites. Last year they acquired the 80,000 sq ft Birmingham Innovation Campus from Birmingham City Council. The move opens the way to another 90,000 sq ft of development.
Now they are talking about acquiring the 9.9 acre Life Sciences Campus site in Selly Oak in a deal with Birmingham University. The site is expected to see 580,000 sq ft of new science-led floorspace.
‘We plan to work with our partners and neighbours, Aston University and Birmingham City University, to develop the Knowledge Quarter together.
‘There is a strong link with us providing facilities to support start-ups and spin-outs and for corporates or SMEs based at Innovation Birmingham who want to attract talent from the universities,’ says Phil.
Similar moves are afoot in Leeds. ‘In Leeds the Innovation District comes very close to our Platform building and the fact that we secured DCMS funding for the Tech Hub on the bottom three floors of Platform, it made sense – let’s use Platform as a bridgehead back into the Innovation District, and help us with our relationship with the city council, the university, and the NHS in Leeds,’ Phil explains.
Meanwhile, they intend to continue expansion in Manchester. ‘We’ve got as much growth planned here in Manchester in science and technology as we have in the other cities,’ Phil confirms. ‘We have a strategic plan for the ongoing development of Manchester Science Park, Citylabs, and Circle Square; we will be adding significantly to these campus locations over the coming years.’
Science has always been seen as a niche in the property market: sterile, wipe-down white box spaces inhabited by lab-coated experts. Not any more.