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Planning and Life Sciences: the challenges and opportunities in the Golden Triangle

In March 2024, the Government issued a paper on “The Case for Cambridge”, identifying that Greater Cambridge is part of Europe’s leading life science centre. However, the report also acknowledges that demand for commercial floorspace is far outstripping supply in the life science sector. 

To those familiar with the life sciences sector, the shortage of laboratory floorspace is not news. According to a recent report on the London Life Science Market (available here), 56% of the life science development pipeline within the UK’s Golden Triangle (Oxford, Cambridge and London) has not achieved planning permission due to delays in the system. The report recommends a strategic and holistic outlook to planning policy and decision making. 

While delays in the planning system are not unique to the life sciences sector, development in the life science sphere poses specific challenges:

  • Laboratories are often “energy hungry”. To meet the ever increasing sustainability requirements (particularly in London and those advocated by the GLA), developers have to work extra hard to design schemes within this sector which are energy efficient. Failing to do so may result in punitive section 106 payments or development being refused altogether.
  • Increasingly there are incentives for re-using building rather than providing new development. Laboratories and other research and development (R&D) facilities require far greater modernisation than standard office space, making conversions less desirable to developers from a cost perspective. Although this is a challenge, the retrofit of the former BBC offices to accommodate labs has shown this is possible. 
  • The amenity impact of research and development space (although falling within the same planning use class as standard office space) can be viewed as more intensive – with considerations such as extraction, disposal of hazardous waste etc being necessary. The explanation as to the effects and mitigation required as part of the planning process can cause additional delay both in preparation for and consideration by the relevant LPA. 
  • Providing affordable workspace for R&D is more expensive than standard office space.

Attempts for regional strategic planning in the context of life sciences seem to have been put on the back-burner by the Government. For example, Government support for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, a “premier growth corridor” comprising both residential development but also additional office and R&D space, has largely been withdrawn. 

However, despite this, a number of exciting planning applications for life science development in the pipeline with some applications having been granted. These include:

  • the redevelopment of Euston Tower to provide a 32-storey mixed-use building which if granted will include offices and research and development floorspace (Class E(g)) in addition to office, retail and community space – currently pending approval; 
  • the development of Belgrove House, a new-build specialised laboratory on Euston Road – construction is underway; 
  • the redevelopment in Whitechapel Road to provide up to 68,386 sqm of Class E(g) space for flexible life science purpose uses – currently pending approval; 
  • the expansion of Granta Park in Cambridge to provide 3 additional buildings for laboratory and R&D use – outline permission granted January 2024
  • the redevelopment of wastewater treatment works on the outskirt of Cambridge to create “Cambridge Discovery Campus” for start-ups and medium sized companies in the life sciences – currently pending approval;
  • the expansion of the Oxford Science Park with 3 additional laboratory and office buildings – planning permission granted in 2023 

These schemes show that there is both demand and opportunity for further development within the life sciences sector. Increased Government / GLA support both in terms of financial resourcing but also wider strategic approach would allow for more life science development to be brought forward faster.

The London Property Alliance report on London’s Knowledge Clusters exploring how the London Life Science Market has developed from developing to maturing can be found here.

"The Government needs to provide or enable
councils to raise the funds to properly
resource planning departments so they
have the skills to process complex planning
applications in a speedy, efficient manner"

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