It’s widely recognised by many local industry experts that Kent needs more commercial property, especially if it is going to compete with the rest of the South East where we lag behind in the productivity race.

The challenges are where can it be built, how quickly and at what cost? With land for residential development worth much more than for commercial space, and with many local authorities unable to meet national planning requirements, it is easy to understand how the situation has arisen.

However, government intervention is needed if we are to ensure these new communities are economically and socially sustainable. Is it time to consider making employment space a statutory requirement for all residential developments over a certain size, in the same way that affordable housing is? This would help to make a stronger connection between residential development and employment space.

Increased market interest

In recent months Clague has experienced an increase in enquiries from developers who have seen the practice’s work at Kings Hill, Medway and elsewhere, and are looking for workable schemes to bring new commercial space to the market.

We have ambitious universities producing excellent graduates, but too often they qualify and then leave the county for jobs in London or elsewhere. Our universities recognise that they need to do more to reverse this trend.

What’s needed is a network of innovation centres, offering small offices for start-ups but with space to expand as they grow. They need to have good road and rail connections, ideally near a town offering a work-life balance.

A good business idea is not a guarantee of commercial success and so these fledgling enterprises also need mentoring and business support on hand to help improve their prospects for survival.

More needs to be done

While there’s been much progress at places such as Discovery Park and there are exciting plans for development in and around Kent Science Park, there’s still much more that could be done to ensure we have places for the new graduates and local entrepreneurs to grow exciting businesses.

The demand for space is perfectly illustrated at the Medway Innovation Centre. Designed by Clague and opened in 2009, it is now home to 50 companies using the shared, serviced conference and meeting room facilities, with a further 70 businesses using the virtual office services.

With the centre a commercial success and plans to transform neighbouring Rochester Airport into Innovation Park Medway, as part of the North Kent Enterprise Zone, it can’t be long before plans emerge to build another one nearby to meet the growing demand.

Work is going on behind the scenes to bring forward new innovation space. Kent Medical Campus offers the prospect of thousands of new jobs and its owners are understood to be working closely with Maidstone Borough Council and examining the viability of a new innovation centre on the 30-acre site near junction 7 of the M20.

In Ashford, Clague is working for Quinn Estates and been responsible for the design of the Commercial Quarter One building, offering 80,000ft2 of grade A office accommodation, with plans for a further 250,000ft2 of business space.

Clague was also responsible for the design of the new £3.6m building for CapitalSpace at Kings Hill, completed late in 2017. The building will soon welcome the first of 30 new tenants, each employing between two and ten people.

The fact that 24 of the new offices were reserved off-plan shows the latent demand there is for flexible small office accommodation with easy-in, easy-out lease arrangements. This type of serviced office scheme could be replicated across Kent and Medway.

It’s clear there’s a demand for new space for high-growth businesses. What’s needed is an innovative approach to bringing it to market and quickly.

Karl Elliott can be contacted via karlelliott@clague.co.uk

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