Crawley business centre ‘will be a major technological innovation asset’

The new year should bring exciting news for Crawley Borough Council in the form of £8.6m to open an Innovation Centre in Manor Royal.

The money was approved by the Coast to Capital LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) in December.

If it is signed off at the end of January, as expected, it will kick-start a project which aims to create 200 jobs and benefit some 40 local businesses.

A major priority in the town’s Economic Recovery Plan, the focus of the centre, as its name suggests, will be innovation and technology – with clean and green at its heart.

Manor Royal

A spokesman for the council said: “The Crawley Innovation Centre will provide vital ‘grow-on’ space which will enable hi-tech small businesses (SMEs) to ‘scale up’, prototype and demonstrate new technologies in clean energy, quantum tech and transportation tech.

“In so doing, the centre will be a major technological innovation asset with aims to both support Crawley’s existing advanced engineering businesses and to attract new high-value jobs and business investment to boost Crawley’s recovery and the Gatwick Diamond.”

As well as the £8.6m from the LEP, the project should benefit from a further £2.5m of funding from the Crawley Towns Fund programme – a matter scheduled to be discussed by the cabinet in February.

While not ready to say exactly where the new centre will be – there’s still a swathe of confidential ‘t’s to be crossed and ‘i’s to be dotted – Peter Smith, cabinet member for planning & economic development, did say that one company was already interested in moving in and could take up as much as one-quarter of the space.

The council owns a parcel of land adjacent to the former Wingspan Club, off County Oak Way, and Mr Smith said the option of developing that land to house the centre had been considered.

But that would mean a complete rebuild – much more expensive and time-consuming than simply fitting out existing buildings to suit your need.

Should everything go as planned, the idea is to bring in an external company with the requisite skills to run the centre.

Not that Mr Smith would be opposed to the council itself running things.

He said: “Obviously if it works I would like to see it taken in-house – we’d like to get K2 and The Hawth back in-house – but only really if it was to save us money or give us a better service.

“It will be lowest risk to get people who are experts in.”

Crawley’s economy has been bitten particularly hard by the pandemic – but even before 2020, business leaders were worried about ‘skills gap’, particularly among school leavers.

Speaking about the town’s dependency on Gatwick Airport for a large percentage of its jobs, Mr Smith said: “People coming in to work from outside exacerbates the issues around skills.

“Far too many people [in Crawley] have got low skills – which is generally what the airport wants – but the airport’s needs were reducing even in normal times with self-service check-ins etc.

“We have already recognised the need to try to up-skill the Crawley workforce, partly because that’s what people like Elekta and Thales need.”

As such, a council spokesman said the centre would ‘actively engage’ with Crawley College and the Universities of Brighton, Chichester and Sussex.

That engagement would cover tech apprenticeships and skills, opportunities for local workforce, SME research, development and business support, and for the centre to accommodate hi-tech academic ‘spin out’ enterprises.

Subject to approval of the £8.6m and £2.5m funding pots, the Innovation Centre will be launched before the end of next year.

That time can’t pass quickly enough for Mr Smith.

The pandemic has seen Crawley’s historically low unemployment rate jump.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics said that, in November, just over 4,000 people were out of work.

While that number was 1,300 fewer than the previous year, that’s still a lot of people looking for a job.

According to data from the Centre for Cities think tank, Crawley was among the most economically successful cities and large towns in the country at the start of 2020, with one of the lowest levels of unemployment.

So will the Innovation Centre have what it takes to give the town’s economy a post-pandemic boost?

Mr Smith said: “We’re not sitting waiting for other people to come along and do things – or for free enterprise to come along – we’re actually trying to grab hold of things and shake them around.

“I think it’s the sort of thing we need in Crawley for our economy.

“The economy drives all our lives whether we work or don’t work, whether we’ve got kids or not.

“The prosperity of the town depends on doing forward-looking things that are going to try to help to improve it.”