Hi-tech jobs key to future

BIOTECHNOLOGY could hold the future that underpins the tens of thousands of new jobs Huntingdonshire will need over the next decade or more. Economic development experts believe the district is uniquely well placed, both geographically and intellectually,

BIOTECHNOLOGY could hold the future that underpins the tens of thousands of new jobs Huntingdonshire will need over the next decade or more.

Economic development experts believe the district is uniquely well placed, both geographically and intellectually, to play home to the type of emerging high-tech jobs that will provide work for a rapidly expanding population.

They believe the move would also encourage residents who now work in London, Cambridge and elsewhere to work in the district, reducing pollution and boosting the local economy.

Excellent transport links - at least when the A14 upgrade is complete - combined with existing biotech businesses and serious academic and commercial expertise in the University of Cambridge and the city's science park could be an irresistible lure for new employers in environmental sciences.

As many as 75,000 jobs will be needed in the Cambridge sub-region to provide work for the occupants of thousands of new homes planned for completion by 2021.

Around 15,000 of those will be needed in Huntingdonshire, which is due to take at least 11,200 homes. But the need for new work in the district is actually at least double that.

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At present, 30,000 Huntingdonshire residents commute out of the district to work - predominantly to London, Cambridge, Peterborough and Bedford - damaging the environment and reducing the impact of their local economy.

Conversely, 11,000 commute into the district each weekday, spending some of their earnings in Huntingdonshire but still adding to pollution.

Huntingdonshire District Council's ambition is to attract new work to match job opportunities to residents' skill-sets, reducing the attractiveness of employment outside Huntingdonshire.

Last week the council asked the business community to help identify areas into which an already diverse economy could successfully expand to take up some of the two million square feet of available business space in Huntingdonshire identified by the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

With manufacturing still accounting for 20 per cent of Huntingdonshire's workforce, the council's head of policy, Ian Leatherbarrow, believes the district needs to develop four or five key sectors to avoid over-reliance on any particular sector. And he is looking particularly to environmental technology to lead the way.

The district already has an expanding base in this sector but wants to encourage activities such as wind turbine and heat exchanger manufacture, as well as sustainable construction, biofuel technology, research and development.

With the National Environmental Research Council's station at Monk's Wood, north of Huntingdon, due to shut up shop over the next three years, a pool of highly-qualified environmental scientists with decades of cutting edge experience will be in the market for firms setting up in the district.

"Companies in Huntingdonshire has proved really good at engineering and developing technological advances developed at Cambridge University," Mr Leatherbarrow said.

"But we also need to focus on creating a better range of jobs and, if the number of houses grows further, the number of jobs will have to grow too."

For the longer term, former RAF bases are seen as providing land for new and growing businesses. Brampton is due to close by 2011, part of Wyton may become available, and the future of Alconbury remains uncertain.

"In the meantime, there's a range of strategic employment sites, such as Crystal Lakes in Fenstanton and in St Neots," Mr Leatherbarrow added. "But people may be holding on to them in the hope of getting more money for housing development."

However, HDC acknowledges that congestion on the A14, skill shortages, lack of key worker housing, a shortage of small business start-up premises and the rural transport network are weaknesses in the district's economy.

But they are more than offset by its strengths, which include its stable and diverse economy - it includes more than 6,000 small firms, and around 10 per cent of the working population is thought to be self-employed - a flexible workforce, the availability of strategic business sites and access to Cambridge's huge and sophisticated research database.

nAt a business breakfast in St Ives last week, several entrepreneurs urged the council to develop business sites in Huntingdonshire's villages. But HDC's head of planning services, Steve Ingram, said that, although there were already industrial areas in most villages, Government policy was for jobs and homes to be located close to each other - in the towns.

Chief executive David Monks complained that, when it came to infrastructure, the Government "seems to be investing in failure" by failing to give adequate support to expanding and successful areas, including the Cambridge sub-region. "We make this point whenever we see Ministers and senior civil servants," he said.

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