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Why Wishful Thinking Leads To Business Park Failure

Time to abandon wishful thinking, time to stop chasing unicorns. That is the mesage from new research into what makes business parks work, and what doesn't.

Can new business parks in Manchester and the West Midlands' M42 corridor learn the lessons by improving transport links, going greener and blending office with residential? Or are they addicted to selling themselves as a cheaper, car-based alternative to city centres?


The British Council for Offices has published research into the morphology and prospects for UK business parks.

The BCO's Future of Business Parks report makes it clear that some UK business parks face a struggle to be sustainable.

Business parks tend to cluster around existing cities and follow the line of the motorway network, the report points out. Few are aligned with the location of public transport, they are isolated from the community around them, full of buildings so widely separated they have no connections, in a "landscape of picturesque isolation, not vibrant urban activity".

But things are changing, as pressures mount from universities — who want to build on the links between emergining technologies and enterprise — from airports, from the residential property sector which is fishing in the same pond for sites and amenities, and from employers and their staff who want more urban facilities. Flexible lab space, incubators for small businesses, university out-stations and conference space are mingling with offices to change the way business parks work in a new world of technology and science opportunities.

So far so good, but is anybody getting this kind of urban-edge development right? According to one leading landscape thinker, too often developers and landlords are indulging in wishful thinking.

Is B-Corp The Answer?

Discovery Park, Sandwich. Planit IE were appointed as Masterplanner and Landscape Architect to develop proposals to make the transition from pharmaceutical research facility to development opportunity site.

Planit-IE is working on a series of schemes in Manchester, London and Birmingham, including Circle Square in Manchester and the Birmingham Royal Conservatoire.

Managing Director Ed Lister said successful business parks involve absorbing the lessons of the BCO report by working on connectivity, infrastructure, sustainability and business collaboration. “People don’t do it, or constrain it, or are wishful about it,” Lister said.

Lister argued that the UK business parks of the future will become more niche, more mixed and more like parks.

“The whole concept of the business park feels like it should be something spacious, somewhere where you literally have a bigger environment in which to work and play. An actual park, in fact," he said. "But there are issues about sustainability and connectivity, which are the key. When you have a business park next to an airport, as we have in Manchester, you have to strive to be super-sustainable to counter the impact of the airport itself.”

Could B-Corps be the answer?

B-Corporations are businesses that have won third party certification on a series of sustainability and accountability targets. They have to meet social sustainability and environmental standards and to be upfront about their failings. B-Corp certification applies to the whole company, including everything it does or sells, making it a demanding manifesto for openness and sustainability.

Lister says it might be a route for business parks. “We’re looking at how we, as a firm, can go down the B-Corp route as a business, and I’m wondering if the owners of business parks could go down that route too, and pledge to be sustainable?” he said.

Adding amenities and residential use could be one way to achieve a more sustainable approach. “To sustain some of the amenity uses that people want, restaurants and shops, requires an extension into evening trade and you need a residential population for that to work,” he said.

Denser, Nicher, More Expensive

The two speculative blocks at plots E1 and E2, Airport City.

The business park of the future will be more densely developed, have a wider mix of uses including residential, and could be more expensive for occupiers.

“Business parks need to be greener, because we know green spaces are good for our mental and physical health, but that doesn’t mean they have to be less dense," Lister said.

"It might mean exactly the opposite, because often business park buildings are isolated HQ-style properties and I’m not sure that’s the right way to go. Maybe it makes more sense to be more intensive about land use and place closely connected buildings around a real park, with good transport links. Rethinking business parks could mean they get more intensely developed, not less.”

The business parks of the future could also be more expensive for occupiers. Today, many in the sprawling south Manchester business park market trade as low-cost alternatives to central Manchester. In the future that may not be possible.

“We will find business parks being more niche. Look for instance at the Alderley Park campus, and the Daresbury campus, both offering proximity to specialist facilities and to a specialist workforce. Parks like these prove the point that you can’t just plonk a business park down anywhere,” Lister said.

“If niche offers generate enough value, and your business has strong social and sustainability values, then locational choices matter. Business parks with those values at their core will trade at a premium.”

As the BCO research shows, too many business parks are aligned to the needs of cars rather than the needs of modern businesses, innovative researchers or talented employees. But there are pressures at work on the urban fringe and in the science and technology sectors which mean both science and residential uses can revive UK business parks so that they can genuinely be parks. That would make them sustainable in a way that wishful thinking about amenity-led makeovers never could.