Ian Burrell: Is Desmond planning to move Northern & Shell out of London to Luton?

Viewpoint: The N&S print plant lacks the prestige of the Thames-side headquarters of Express Newspapers
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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 not much more than a passing reference in a distant television commercial for Campari. Actress Lorraine Chase 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 print plant, where the first all-colour copies of the Daily Star will come off the presses on 28 November.

Planning documents filed by Desmond's Northern & Shell (N&S) publishing company show his ambitions go much further. N&S has applied to build a three-storey office complex for 900 workers, which would equate 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 that comprises the OK!, New! and Star titles. Desmond may also consider relocating staff from his Channel 5 television network.

The big move to Luton would help to reverse the concentration of British media in London, and would follow the BBC's decision to move channels and departments to Media City 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 the Luton Airport Parkway station, which has six trains an hour to London St Pancras and a journey time of 35 minutes. Another potential sticking point is the notorious Junction 10A of the M1. 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, already decorated with the huge masthead logos of the Express, Star and OK! and Desmond's beloved company motto of Forti Nihil Difficile ("Nothing is Difficult for the Strong"), is on a soulless industrial estate. 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.

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

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

Desmond hopes the presses, capable of printing 90,000 copies an hour, can compete for business with other major printing operations.

In the meantime, the Luton plant is being overseen by David Broadhurst, chief executive of West Ferry, who said that 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)."

Desmond 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 access to digital media is being made much easier through developments in technology, I believe 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."

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