News Analysis: Wellcome Trust hits local hostility in the battle of Hinxton Hall

In rejecting a pounds 100m business park, Cambridge may lose benefits of a genetic breakthrough
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The Independent Online
AT FIRST sight it seems to be a typical case of stick-in-the-mud bureaucrats thwarting attempts by plucky British scientists to produce world-beating technology.

The Wellcome Trust, the world's richest charity and Britain's biggest medical research benefactor, wants to create a business park next door to its Hinxton Hall genetic research station in Cambridgeshire.

But South Cambridgeshire District Council has other ideas. The pounds 100m development might bring 1,000 new jobs to the site, which already employs 500, and according to the council the local roads and housing stock are totally inadequate to support all those new employees flooding the village, 10 miles south of Cambridge.

So far the council's view has prevailed. Last week, following a second public planning inquiry, the Government upheld the council's objection to the 40,000 square metre development.

And in two weeks, following the latest rejection, the Wellcome Trust board of governors will meet to decide whether to scale the project down, scrap it or move it overseas.

As with all stories, however, there is more to the "battle of Hinxton Hall" than meets the eye.

Wellcome Trust saw the planning application as a test of the Labour government's commitment to foster Britain's world leadership in "sunrise" industries such as biotechnology, a stance reaffirmed earlier this month by a committee headed by science minister Lord Sainsbury.

Thus far the charity is not interested in a compromise offer from the council which would involve an initial business park development of about half the size, with the prospect of expanding it to Wellcome's originally planned size when the demand warranted it.

The stakes in this battle are particularly high. Hinxton is no ordinary research site, even among the myriad of business and science parks that now dot the Cambridgeshire countryside, and the planning row comes on the eve of what many scientists believe will be the most significant advancement ever in medical science.

The site is home to the Human Genome Campus, which is at the centre of a mammoth global effort to identify and map the genes that exist within the human body, and thus produce a definitive construction manual for humanity.

Cambridge is of course the place where DNA was first discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, and the area is home to much of Britain's biotechnology industry. It is also the centre of a growing battle between business entrepreneurs and environmentalists, as the development of the region puts unprecedented strain on local infrastructure.

Next year the Human Genome Project is expected to publish a "first draft" of the contents of human DNA, which is expected to spark a frenzy of new business start-ups as scientists connected with the project peel off to create commercial applications using this data.

The Wellcome Trust, with assets of pounds 11bn, thanks chiefly to its historical stake in pharmaceuticals giant Glaxo Wellcome, is incensed by the block on its plans to create a business community around its research. It has been the main patron of the Human Genome Project in the UK, and a number of other research centres around the world working on the Human Genome Project could benefit from Wellcome's largesse.

Critics of the planning decision say that Britain is once again letting world-beating technology go abroad for the sake of petty bureaucracy. They point to the example of the United States, whose local zoning authorities bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of business. But conservation campaigners have welcomed the stance, arguing that unrestrained development will destroy the quality of life in this mostly rural part of East Anglia.

The Hinxton dispute also has parallels with telecoms giant Vodafone's ongoing battle to win consent to build a pounds 100m headquarters building on a greenfield site on the outskirts of Berkshire.

Vodafone's chief executive Chris Gent has threatened to relocate to Swindon, Reading, or even go overseas if he does not get his way.

Interestingly, the common thread in both planning disputes is not the fact that green meadows are to be concreted over, but the pollution and congestion caused by thousands of workers taking to their cars every morning and clogging up the roads around the new developments, despite efforts by local authorities to boost public transport links.

"In the end, most people will want to travel by private car and we must acknowledge this in our planning assessment," says Gareth Jones, deputy planning officer at South Cambridgeshire District Council.

The "car issue" strikes at the heart of the problem the Government faces when trying to foster new business development, while at the same time pacifying the green lobby, not to mention keeping Labour-voting "Mondeo man" happy.

The juggling act is not an easy one, and as an influential report from the consultancy firm McKinsey pointed out last year, it will be hard for Britain to create world-beating businesses while still retaining a tranquil, heritage-filled countryside with one of the least-developed road networks of any industrialised country.

Biotechnology industry figures privately doubt that Wellcome will make good its threat to up sticks and move its operations abroad when it meets in a fortnight. But whatever the outcome, local observers believe that East Anglia will remain on the front line of the business versus environment war for some time to come.