Red tape holding back UK’s ambition to be a life sciences superpower, warn experts


Planning red tape is holding back Rishi Sunak’s bid to make Britain a life sciences ‘superpower’, officials have been told, amid a dearth of laboratory space across the UK.

Figures seen by the Telegraph show that around 56pc of planned life science developments in Britain’s so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London are still waiting to receive planning permission.

The analysis, compiled by the London Property Alliance and presented in a closed-door meeting to planning officials for the capital last week, reveals around 2.6 million square feet of lab space in London is still awaiting a planning decision.

Retail and pharmaceutical experts said resourcing issues within local authorities were to blame for projects being held up for longer than necessary.

It threatens to strike a blow to Britain’s ambition to take a leading position in life sciences research globally.

The Prime Minister earlier this year unveiled a sweeping plan to cement the UK as a science and technology superpower by 2030, saying Britain could “only stay ahead with focus, dynamism and leadership”. The ten-point plan included a £50m fund to help research institutes and universities improve their facilities to give researchers access to better lab space.

Sir John Bell, the UK’s life sciences champion who played a crucial role during the Covid vaccine development, has described the lack of space as a “massive problem” which would weigh on innovation in Britain. “Planning delays are rife and we have a serious shortage of lab space,” he said.

Sir John Bell, the UK’s life sciences champion said the serious shortage of lab space will weigh on innovation in Britain
Sir John Bell, the UK’s life sciences champion said the serious shortage of lab space will weigh on innovation in Britain - Aaron Chown/PA

Lab vacancy rates in London and Cambridge at just 1pc and around 7pc in Oxford.

It has sparked a race for any space, with more space taken in Cambridge in the first seven months of the year than was agreed in the whole of 2022.

In London, fully-fitted lab suites are being rented for more than £75 per square foot, compared to £65 in 2022, according to Savills data. It is expected to hit £90 by 2026.

Experts warned that this was creating a bottleneck for growth, preventing researchers from being able to find enough space to develop innovations.

It comes after years of Britain being a leading global hub for biotech companies, with only the US outpacing the UK for innovation. Around 31pc of all start-ups created in Europe between 2018 and 2020 were formed in the UK, according to figures from McKinsey.

Charles Begley, head of the London Property Alliance, which represents 400 real estate companies and investors, said: “The property industry has played a key role in the emergence of clusters across the capital, helping embed a DNA of life science innovation and bringing the world’s leading companies and research professionals together.

“But we cannot take this success for granted and without action London risks losing its momentum to the likes of New York and Copenhagen, which have put in place ambitious frameworks for growth.”

The industry group urged the Government to “advance tangible plans that would help strengthen the spin out eco-system” as well as push for faster and more effective decision making over planning permission.

Estimates suggest that Boston, San Francisco, San Diego and New York have more than 20 times the amount of lab space in the UK.

Daniel Hajjar of HOK, the life science project experts, said Britain would not be able to spawn innovation and entrepreneurship without the right research facilities and ecosystem.

He said: “Frankly, a researcher will look at things like where can I get affordable space and where is it best for my staff to live, work and play.”

He said other countries would be racing to attract companies by giving start-ups “what they’re asking for”. Mr Hajjar added: “If the UK isn’t willing to invest in the sector then there’ll be somewhere else that is.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.