How political leadership, partnership, strong strategy and enthusiasm is creating a new high end science and technology hub in the Garden of England
Kent is the English county called the Garden of England. Plant a seed in Kent and it will grow and flourish – apples, pears, cherries, grapes, strawberries, blackcurrants, almost every vegetable imaginable and oats, barley, grain and…well Kent feeds millions of people on a daily basis. Non-agri businesses also grow and flourish in Kent, but sometimes bad news comes along.
Early 2011 brought grim news for the coastal town of Sandwich in the South East of Kent Pfizer, one of the world’s biggest and most distinguished pharmaceuticals businesses, announced that after 50 years it was to close its Sandwich facility. 2,400 jobs direct jobs were set to go (at one point the facility employed 6,000 people) and Kent County Council estimated that the coastal Kent economy would see job losses of approaching 8,000 when the Pfizer redundancies were added to big cuts in public sector employment and through jobs going as local firms contracting or failing in the wake of the credit crunch.
Pfizer’s decision to end its time at Sandwich was a commercial reaction to very large changes in the way global pharmaceuticals undertake research and development. Across the globe the giant players have been moving from an exclusively in-house R&D model to new approach that, among other benefits, reduces risk and central costs.
Sandwich, one of the oldest established towns in England, is also home to the famous Royal St Georges Golf Club. The one sure bright spot in a difficult year for the local economy was Royal St Georges hosting the Open Championship. Many millions of pounds were spent in the area over the weeks before and during the great event, but all the time worries about the future of the local economy were never far away.
But then something happened that I’ve seen happen in other parts of the UK and overseas, but which has been relatively unusual in the South East of England. The political machine unified and moved at lightning speed to help find a strategy for future progress and build a machine fit for the task.
David Willets, the UK government minister responsible for industrial policy called on the leader of Kent’s top level of local government, Paul Carter, to lead a taskforce charged with finding ways of creating a commercially viable future for Pfizer’s huge Sandwich site, which also housed some of the world’s most advanced and specialised pharmaceutical R&D labs and equipment.
Finding a future for the site was critical, but equally important was giving hope to all those world-class scientists, specialist engineers, IT managers and other experts with skills the world was hungry to buy. If there was no hope work in the immediate area most people would move away, so quickly finding ways of keeping significant numbers of commercially oriented life scientists living locally was central to creating a new cutting edge life sciences hub at Sandwich.
Carter and local Member of Parliament, Laura Sandys, were in no doubt that what appeared to be a desperate situation of closure - in the eye of a global financial storm, with most of the world’s economies flat-lining and businesses contracting and dying at every turn, was in fact a great opportunity to remodel the local economy, recover from the loss of Pfizer and establish the conditions for successful new businesses.