The town that Pfizer built up – and knocked down

The drug giant’s itinerant strategy can have a brutal effect, as the Kent town of Sandwich can testify
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Pfizer’s decision in early 2011 to close its research and development site at Sandwich, Kent, with the loss of 2,400 jobs brings back painful memories for businesses in a town that has a population of just 5,000 people.

“It hit us quite suddenly, there was no warning at all,” said Chris Ash, owner of the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant on the Quay, overlooking the River Stour, the closest restaurant to the sprawling site that housed the pharmaceutical giant’s operations.

“We used to get a lot of people in for lunch and dinner and in particular business lunches, so we felt the full draught of the exodus, as did most of the other restaurants and pubs in Sandwich.”

Pfizer’s 390-acre UK base was the largest pharmaceutical research centre outside the United States. Viagra was one of many drugs discovered or created at its base which, given its scale, felt very empty when the firm downsized dramatically, despite retaining hundreds of staff.

Following Pfizer’s withdrawal, David Cameron declared the Sandwich site one of a dozen Enterprise Zones in the UK where it was hoped tax breaks would begin to attract businesses back to the area. And firms are starting to fill the site once again.

The target was for 2,600 jobs and 190 businesses to fill the space Pfizer vacated.  More than 1,200 people at 68 companies now work on-site, although more than 600 of these are the Pfizer staff who survived the cull.

“It took another six months for trade to start picking up again and only after we worked even harder to attract new customers with special offers and other enticements,” added Mr Ash, who has been running Fisherman’s Wharf with wife Barbara for 15 years.

Pfizer’s was the largest such research centre outside the US (Justin Sutcliffe/The Independent)

“Even then, the holiday seasons have never been the same. Our profits for December are down 25 per cent as Pfizer used to have around a dozen Christmas parties here.

“Things are getting much better though. The Environment Agency has done a lot of flood prevention work and the defences look very attractive by the riverside. More visitors are walking past here now so we’re in a much better position now.” 

Further along the Quay is the Bell Hotel where walkers congregate at the gateway to the east Kent coast and packs of golfers come for a chance to play on Sandwich’s golf courses – Prince’s and the Royal St George’s. The latter course hosted the Open championship in July 2011 giving a much-needed boost to the local economy.

Nigel Bunting, retail director of Shepherd Neame, which owns the Bell Hotel, said: “When we acquired the hotel we were already aware of Pfizer’s plans to reduce the workforce.

“Since then we have further invested in this historic 37-bedroom hotel, undertaking a £380,000 refurbishment. There are many exciting prospects ahead for Discovery Park, which is attracting a range of new companies due to its Enterprise Zone status.”

At a recent event to mark the 50th company to be given a loan from the Expansion East Kent fund, set up by the Government and administered by Kent County Council, the council leader Paul Carter said the region had come a long way since Pfizer’s closure. He said: “We have made dramatic progress. It has been extraordinary really and you’ll be hearing about more exciting announcements shortly – all related to biosciences and pharmaceuticals.”