Ian Burrell: Desmond looks at Luton as the new HQ for Northern & Shell

 

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The Independent Online

Until now, Luton's claims to being a nerve centre for the British media have been based on little more than a passing reference in a distant television commercial for Campari. Actress Lorraine Chase – think of a Seventies prototype for The Only Way is Essex – denied a suitor's suggestion that she had arrived from Paradise and coined a national catchphrase: "Nah, Luton Airport!" But beyond the end of that Luton runway, media magnate Richard Desmond is building his new empire. At first it will be little more than a giant print plant, where the first, all-colour copies of the Daily Star will come off the presses on the evening of 28 November.

Planning documents filed by Mr Desmond's Northern & Shell (N&S) publishing company show his ambitions for the site go much further. N&S has applied for permission to build a three-storey office complex with capacity for 900 workers, which equates to 75 per cent of the entire N&S staff. N&S also publishes the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, the Daily Star Sunday and a magazine stable comprising OK!, New! and Star. Mr Desmond may also consider relocating some staff from his Channel 5 television network.

The big move to Luton would help reverse the concentration of British media in London, which has intensified over the past 20 years, and would follow the BBC's decision to move channels and departments to the Media City complex in Salford.

But the N&S plan is dependent on communications links to the capital, where most media workers are based. The office complex is planned at the end of the 8.5-acre site closest to Luton Airport Parkway station, which has six trains an hour to London St Pancras and a journey time of 35 minutes. A planned new entrance to the station would be a two-minute walk from the offices.

A potential sticking point is the M1's notorious Junction 10A, which has long made Luton infamous with motorway drivers. But earlier this month Luton Borough Council won a bid for a £20m Regional Growth Fund grant which should pay for the bottleneck to be unblocked by 2013.

The N&S site, decorated with huge, masthead logos of the Express, Star and OK! and Mr Desmond's beloved company motto of Forti Nihil Difficile ("Nothing is Difficult for the Strong"), is on a soulless industrial estate and bordered on three sides by Vauxhall Motors factories. It lacks the prestige of the Thames-side headquarters of Express Newspapers, where Channel 5 is also based, having been relocated from glamorous Covent Garden.

The N&S chairman, Mr Desmond says he is still "undecided" on whether to move staff north and create a media hub in Luton.

"We already have an outstanding media hub for Britain in Lower Thames Street," he told i. "With regards moving other parts of the N&S operation to Luton, we're undecided. There are huge benefits in Luton... but similar benefits in staying where we are."

Other options for the site include renting the planned offices to a third party or using the space for more printing. The state-of-the-art Luton presses have been imported from Germany and will be operated by 88 staff and nine laser-guided robots.

Mr Desmond's West Ferry printing business will leave its existing print plant in London's Docklands – which employed 190 people when it opened but printed at only 40,000 copies an hour – by March next year. Luton is likely to start printing New! and Star magazines from 2013.

Mr Desmond hopes that the presses, capable of printing 90,000 copies an hour, can compete for business with other major printing operations, such as the £350m facility that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp opened in 2008 at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire. "With Luton, we have some of the most advanced print technology in the world and once the transition from Docklands is complete, we will look to offer our technology to other media businesses."

In the meantime, the Luton plant is being overseen by David Broadhurst, chief executive of West Ferry, who said Luton was the first site that N&S looked at. "It's at the bottom of the M1 and at the top of the M25, so you can go up into the Midlands and down to the South Coast quite easily. The railway station is very close so it has the added advantage that we can get into town [London]."

Mr Desmond himself is keen to emphasise the £100m scale of a 25-year investment in the future of print media, a sector supposedly in its death throes.

"While there's no doubt that access to digital media is being made that much easier through developments in technology, I believe that people will be reading newspapers in their current form for many years to come," he said. "We wouldn't be making such huge investments in print if we didn't believe in its future. The technology we have is next generation print and the output will be second to none."

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