Saturday, September 28, 2013
It’s been four years since the former RAF Alconbury site was bought by developers Urban&Civic and in that time, at least to passing motorists on the B1043, the site looks tidier but, in general, little different.
The main entrance has been moved temporarily to the north, some new roads have been built and a few structures have come down.
But while the site remains very much a former military compound, behind the scenes £10million of investment and two million words of planning documents have been laying the foundations for the transformation of the brownfield site to an enterprise zone, thousands of homes, new schools, open spaces, a railway station connected to the capital and south coast and an array of infrastructure.
There has also been some building work. One new building is close to being completed and it’s arguably going to be the most important that will be developed on Alconbury Weald – the incubator unit on the Enterprise Campus is a signal of what’s to come and, importantly to U&C, how it should be built and delivered.
On September 20, the building – and the site as a whole – were given centre stage as U&C declared the campus open for business. The rest of the site has to wait a bit longer as the outline planning application is awaiting a decision from Huntingdonshire District Council – due next month.
In the meantime, U&C has been concentrating its efforts on attracting businesses to the 150-hectare campus. A few firms have moved in to existing buildings and more are to join them soon. There has also been a great deal of interest from other would-be tenants – enquiries that add up to about one million square feet of space, U&C chairman Nigel Hugill told The Hunts Post.
The aim is to attract, among others, high value manufacturing, research and development, clean tech and ITC firms – all business that will provide skilled jobs and employment for about 8,000. There’s a clear message Alconbury Weald – and Huntingdon-shire – does not have to hang on the coat-tails of Cambridge. It can compete with the city as well as complementing it.
“If you look at the growth pattern in Cambridge it’s clustered around the centre,” said Mr Hugill. “This is a much more flexible place than anywhere in Cambridge because we have the strength of scale. Cambridge offers high costs and high quality. We will be able to offer low cost and high quality.
“In terms of construction we are in a position to meet bespoke requirements and [depending on the requirements] we can build as fast as a company can relocate.”
Then there are the transport links – a huge attraction for U&C when it bought the land. These – along with the business rate discounts offered at enterprise zones – are the major selling point for Alconbury Weald and one of the reasons why Friday’s guests – property agents from across the country – were flown around the site in helicopters. It’s an impressive list: The A1 and links to the north, the A14 and Cambridge to the east, and there’s the east coast mainline with plans for an Alconbury Weald station. There are also plans to extend the guided bus route to the site. Helicopter landing pads are unlikely to make the detailed plans but from the air you get the sense of the size of the project – a 575 hectare site that will include 5,000 homes and 720 acres of open space.
Alconbury Weald has the potential to provide jobs and housing for Huntingdonshire for decades.
And with HDC able to turnaround a planning application for the enterprise zone in just 36 days, as it did for the incubator unit, the overall package makes Huntingdonshire an attractive location to the kind of company executives who may have previously driven through the district without stopping.
At the launch HDC leader Councillor Jason Ablewhite said: “There has been a lot of rhetoric about enterprise zones but here it’s not rhetoric, it’s actually happening.”
The jobs and investment are taking place in Huntingdonshire already, U&C says. Alconbury Weald project manager Tim Leathes added: “We estimate we have spent £6m with local contractors to date and look forward to reaching our target of delivering 1,500 jobs by 2015.”
He added: “Friday was really positive, with over 70 commercial property agents getting the chance to take a good look at the site and talk about the deals we will do for companies wanting to come here.”
Houses, subject to planning permissions, are also on the way.
“We could be building them by this time next year,” said Mr Hugill. “We are working on the designs with one of the best residential architects in the country, John Thompson.”
Should U&C secure its outline planning permission next month, it is well on the way to having its detailed plans ready and then the passing motorists will begin to see a huge difference.