Oxbridge office and lab space remained resilient against Covid-19

Take-up of office and laboratory space in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc has remained remarkably resilient in the first half of this year as the region’s leading role in the fight against Covid-19 continues to drive demand for space, according to recent reports by Property Consultants Bidwells.

Bidwells has revealed that the combined office and lab take-up in Oxford has totalled up to 117,600 sq ft between January and July of this year, reaching 85 percent of the city’s 10-year average.

In Cambridge, combined office and lab take-up totalled up to 130,300 sq ft in the same period. Although this only equates to 40 percent of the city’s 10-year average, the first six weeks of Q3 have seen a further 50,000 sq ft of transactions complete and there is a significant volume of space under offer which, when complete, will bring the percentage closer to 80 per cent.

The university cities of Oxford and Cambridge combined has seen a near threefold increase in scientific and technical employment over the last decade. The latest ONS data shows a 72 per cent increase in Oxford and Cambridge science and technical employment between 2017-18, compared with an 8 per cent growth in employment overall. Both of the cities saw some of the lowest levels of staff furloughed in the country at 13 per cent and 11 per cent respectively compared with a national average of over 24 per cent.

The life science sector was inevitably a key driver of demand; the availability of lab space in Cambridge fell to just 3.5 per cent by the end of June.

Given the disruption and uncertainty during the latter four months of H1, this is a remarkable outcome and testament to the unique business structure of these markets. To put this in context, the UK’s major regional cities, on average, saw 30 per cent of their 10 year mean take up over the same period.

Providing insight into the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’s performance during the pandemic, Sue Foxley, Research Director at Bidwells shares her thoughts: 

As the Government looks to the future of the UK economy and the levelling up agenda, the importance of science and technology to the national economic future is evident. While Oxford, Cambridge and London are defined as leading life science locations, cities such as Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and Leeds are identified as established or emerging locations, potentially providing the springboard for future economic growth.

Given this, one of the key learning points from the Arc’s experience in the current crisis is the importance of critical mass. This is not only in the context of expertise in the universities and research institutes, but also the depth of private sector knowledge and facilities.

The Arc’s response to the pandemic has emphasised the value of having high tech manufacturing facilities cheek by jowl with laboratories, research institutes, teaching hospitals and the like. Together the area has demonstrated the power of collective ingenuity and collaborative culture.

Such depth cannot be created overnight, and a long-term strategy with involvement of a range of parties is needed, whether through the provision of investment funding for SMEs, laboratory space on flexible leases, infrastructure, or strategic planning for housing to attract the most important resource of all, skilled staff. This latter point is the greatest challenge for all locations, but perhaps it may be aided by our new-found ability to work flexibly, as both high skilled staff and organisations are able to look further afield for jobs and workers alike. The potential for a further expansion of scientific collaboration across the UK could be a positive side effect, again supporting a levelling-up agenda.

But, the crisis has also highlighted the importance of not neglecting our areas of strength. There are many companies across the Arc, particularly SMEs in the science and technology sector, that have encountered severe challenges during the COVID-19 crisis. Lower levels of funding availability and delays in progressing trials and testing programmes impacting on funding milestones have combined with the ongoing physical challenges of available space, housing affordability and high skilled staff shortages. All these factors will have long term implications if not addressed.

The pandemic has brought science to the forefront of public consciousness. Policy consciousness needs to follow suit.