An enterprising approach

Progress has been slow but the £20m building coming out of the ground in Samlesbury is a very visible sign the development of Lancashire’s Aerospace Enterprise Zone is gathering pace.

The impressive University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC North West) is on target to be completed in the autumn.

Not only will it play a key role in the county’s economic future and its post-pandemic recovery, those behind the development of the zone believe it will act as a major catalyst for further inward investment on the site.

Samlesbury is one of four enterprise zone (EZ) sites that make up the wider Lancashire Advanced Manufacturing and Energy Cluster.

Blackpool Airport, Hillhouse in Wyre and Warton, which like Samlesbury sits next to a BAE Systems planemaking plant, make up the cluster.

They EZ idea was first unveiled in 2011 by the then Chancellor George Osborne. The collective aim of the Lancashire cluster was to help create more than 10,000 highly productive high value jobs and “an economic and investor offer of truly Northern Powerhouse significance”.

A number of incentives were also announced to attract companies to EZs, including business rates relief and enhanced capital allowances.

There is no shortage of interest and that is why this is a massively important site for us

It is fair to say that since then the going has been slow. However, Stephen Young, Lancashire County Council’s executive director of growth, says the importance of the EZs is greater than ever, in terms of economic recovery from Covid-19 and the government’s levelling-up agenda.

He says: “The enterprise zones are a key part of the narrative with government and we remain committed to them.”

Stephen describes 2021 as a “huge year” for the project, with new infrastructure being developed on the Samlesbury site as well as the landmark AMRC building continuing to come out of the ground.

He adds: “Despite Covid, which has made it much more difficult to get things done, that project has continued at pace and is on track.”

In February, Electricity North West begin work on a £7.5m upgrade of its network in Samlesbury, to help power the 50-acre EZ site towards becoming a national centre of excellence for advanced engineering and manufacturing related companies.

The project includes the creation of a new 33,000-volt substation and laying more than 22km of underground cables connecting the site to the network, paving the way for further “strategic development”.

Stephen says: “It will really speed up what is going to happen on the site and we’re talking to a number of developers.

He expects some of those to sign up this year and adds: “There is no shortage of interest and that is why this is a massively important site for us.”

BAE Systems has also invested heavily in the EZ, creating an asset management facility and its Academy for Skills and Knowledge. Stephen says there is also a potential expansion of that training facility sometime in the future.

He agrees that it has taken time to develop and move the EZs forward. So much so, some of the incentives aimed at attracting businesses are set to expire.

However, he says that the type of multi-national companies currently in discussions over possible developments aren’t likely to make investment decisions based on offerings like business rate relief.

In contrast to the progress seen at Samlesbury, there has been very little movement further west at Warton.

The Aviation Enterprise Zone site there covers 75 hectares of land alongside BAE Systems’ plant, which has an operational airfield.

Stephen says the focus has been firmly on Samlesbury and moving that zone forward, although conversations are now taking place about Warton and its role.

David Holmes, operations and technology director for Air at BAE Systems, is a member of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) board and chairs its EZ governance committee.

He believes having four EZs puts the county in a “privileged position” and the aim is for them to play a big role in its post-pandemic recovery.

He explains: “We’ve got these EZs dotted around the county and they are all offering something slightly different, while being very complementary.”

David adds that the companies looking to develop their operations on the EZs are looking for something more than a piece of cheap real estate.

The approach is not to just build out the EZs and cover them with large-scale warehouses but to create eco-systems that encourage jobs and skills opportunities.

Describing the AMRC as a “big statement of intent”, David says: “What we are trying to do through our strategy and working closely with our partners is come up with something that really sets Lancashire apart.”

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