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The Journey to Space…City Leicester

  • 14 April 2023
  • By William Wells
  • This HEPI Blog was kindly written by William Wells, Deputy Director Research & Enterprise Division at the University of Leicester

‘Why are you trying to build a Space Park in Leicester? You don’t really have a space industry there.’ This question posed to me by a civil servant at a conference in 2015. At the time it left me somewhat perplexed, but I was clear on the logic and the ambition within the University of Leicester team behind the idea, and it underpinned our vision. Our plan was to attract businesses to our city. They would come because we would develop a competitive eco-system underpinned by world leading research and a strong flow of talent.

In the context of “Levelling Up” and “Place”, the economic watch words of the past three years, such a question, posed today, would not just be perplexing, but contrary to prevailing economic policy. The reality of levelling up and place-based growth, requires ambition and investment from government which must be combined with vision and action from regional players. When Space Park Leicester was conceived in 2014, there was no discernible commercial space industry in the City or County. There was a small clutch of businesses, which had emerged from the presence of a small division of Airbus, but nothing of real scale. It was, however, was possible to discern more than a core of activity in the National Space Centre, with its National Space Academy both of which had emerged out of the University of Leicester, one of the most prominent space research institutions globally. The university has long been a hub of academic excellence in space research, including, earth observation and geospatial analysis, physics and astronomy, instrumentation and space engineering. Critically, more than 10,000 students graduate annually in relevant STEM fields in the wider region – about 8% of the total UK’s yearly STEM graduates. Most of these graduates were leaving a regional economy that has not provided the relevant opportunities to build a career in technology driven industries locally. At 33%, Leicestershire has one of the lowest graduate employment levels in England

In 2014 the UK space sector was being heralded as a significant economic growth opportunity for the UK. The National Space Innovation and Growth strategy held out the prospect of a £400 million industry employing over 100,000 people in the UK by 2030. Recognising the assets that we had and the potential to create jobs and growth, a partnership of University, Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership and the City was forged around a shared mission to respond to the external opportunity and try and capture some of that growth for our city and county. The steps taken presaged critical regional policy advice, which would later form a component of the Levelling Up agenda. Specifically, that Cities such as Leicester that had seen a relative decline in economic complexity over the recent past need to “reinvent their economies rather than further replicating what they already have”.  Local policy makers, local government and leadership in the university boldly asserted that Leicester could, and should, lay claim to its share of the economic growth promised by Space and Space enabled industries.

Successive waves of capital investment by the University of Leicester and its regional and national partners saw the physical reality of Space Park Leicester emerge by July 2021. Capital investment was complemented by initiatives such as Enterprise Zone status (Ministry of Homes Communities and Local Government) and a designation as a High Potential Opportunity Zone -which saw the site marketed globally by Department for International Trade. Most recently Space Park is leading on the development of a Midlands space cluster alongside partners in Nottingham and Birmingham, supported by investment from the UK Space Agency.

The site is now a world leading example of a focussed technology and data campus, providing excellent shared access facilities for businesses and researchers. It promotes interaction, engagement and a flow of talent through a combination of shared research programmes, events and innovation services.

The strategy for growing the business community at Space Park Leicester has been underpinned by a twin focus: nurturing home-grown businesses; and marketing the opportunity to global companies.  In the case of the latter, we were doing so in a context where the East Midlands has been a poor relation in terms of attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) -relative to the rest of the UK. Space Park offers a compelling proposition.  Space Park has been very effective in packaging access to a regional business & innovation ecosystem, innovation services and pathways to researchers and a ready supply of talent. It has done so in a planned and joined up way with the City Inward Investment Team, the Department of International Trade and national networks. In doing so, the dial has been turned and the site is now home to seven international businesses (and many more in the pipeline). Global entities such as Airbus, CGI and Rolls Royce have established significant operations. With a further 13 UK businesses, Space Park Leicester is already the 2nd largest campus-based cluster with a dedicated space focus in the UK.

In the context of a recent HEPI report on universities as drivers are foreign direct investment, Leicester is a dramatic example of what can be achieved by a university and its regional partners working together to develop a compelling proposition and plot a considered course to develop a new economy which will create new and exciting jobs. It is this approach which sees Space Park Leicester on the verge of being a critical part of “Space City Leicester”. This latest step demonstrates the clear ambition of the city and signals global intent. It brings together businesses, researchers, students and the local community under a common brand, of which all can be proud and which we can use to build yet more success. Leicester is many things: diverse; rich in heritage, history and culture; and resilient. 

It is now also, undoubtedly, ‘Space City Leicester’.

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