Alconbury Airfield Enterprise Zone could change Hunts employment map

IF Alconbury Airfield is identified by the Government as one of the winners in the Enterprise Zone competition next month, the aim will be to transform the character of employment in Huntingdonshire.

According to the district council’s communications and partnerships manager, Helen Donnellan, the district’s economy simply does not have enough employment sites at present. Nor does it have sufficient specialist jobs to provide work for thousands of highly-skilled residents.

Instead, many of the district’s graduates work in London or Cambridge. But, if the EZ at Alconbury succeeds in attracting the high-tech and green-tech companies that HDC and site-owner Urban and Civic are looking for, the need for out-commuting could dramatically decrease.

“Most employers in Huntingdonshire are micro-businesses that can’t grow because there’s nowhere for them to go, Mrs Donnellan said.

“Restricting development in the EZ to B1 and B2 uses – offices and light industrial use and no more sheds – will bring higher-skilled jobs for qualified people who can’t now find jobs locally.

“A lot of research goes on in Cambridge, and there are quite a few prototyping businesses in Huntingdonshire, but then the scale production goes abroad. With the EZ we could keep it here.”

It would add 3,000 further job opportunities to the 5,000 already expected when U&C’s development gets into full swing. In the meantime, even though the existing businesses operating on temporary consents might have to move premises, the 800 jobs they support would be safe, she said.

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EZ status would not only attract SMEs but would make Alconbury, which is the largest brownfield site in the south of England, attractive to larger companies, she added.

Mathematically, it has a 40 per cent chance of success in next month’s competition, but the feeling among those involved is that it will be particularly attractive to the Government for a variety of reasons – geography, accessibility, existing zoning, single ownership and ease of implementation. What’s more, it is in a growth area that is part of the knowledge sector from which most people think the basis for national economic recovery will derive.

It would also go some way to appeasing Cambridgeshire business leaders who believe ministers have failed to grasp the economic potential of the area in investment decisions over the past year.

If the zone gets the go-ahead, the developers will build speculatively, probably targeting luring in around 30 new businesses by 2014, Mrs Donnellan said, providing new employment space at a rate between 50,000 and 100,000 square feet per year as the zone grew.

U&C managing director Robin Butler believes Alconbury has a good chance in the competition. “We know we will be up against stiff competition at national level, and that the process is in-depth and thorough,” he said. “But we also know we will have a strong bid, which ticks all the boxes for Government and will provide benefits not just for Huntingdonshire but across the LEP area.

“If we are successful in the Enterprise Zone bid, the process for the zone would run in advance of the overall masterplan [for the 1,400-acre site], which we intend to submit in spring or summer 2012. This will allow us to build the employment space and deliver local jobs as early as possible.”