Plan for ‘transformative’ £18m Skills and Innovation Centre passes milestone

Mid Suffolk District Council’s plan for an £18m Skills and Innovation Centre in Stowmarket has passed a major milestone

Mid Suffolk District Council’s plan for an £18m Skills and Innovation Centre in Stowmarket has passed a major milestone – with hopes it will be “transformative” for business, training and jobs.

The three-storey, state-of-the-art centre at Gateway 14, part of the Freeport East site, would have office space for high growth start-ups, collaboration and innovation spaces, training and meeting rooms, as well as a café.

In partnership with West Suffolk College and the universities of Suffolk and Essex, the Centre aims to address the skills gaps locally and within the Freeport area and seize opportunities around growing sectors such as the green economy and digital/AI technology.

Mid Suffolk District Council’s full council has now approved the funding strategy for the centre, subject to agreement from Freeport East in March. 

Cllr Richard Winch, cabinet member for housing and property, said:

“I am thrilled to see this exciting project, which is a real statement of intent from Mid Suffolk District Council, pass yet another milestone. 

By bringing business and training together, it can ensure employers have a fantastic talent pipeline. Bridging this skills gap, with a particular focus on skills for the green economy, can encourage more inward investment in our district, while helping businesses grow and innovate.

For example, if you look at a sector like heat pumps, the industry is saying in a couple of years 600,000 will be installed annually. I know of two entrants in the market this year who are each due to each train up 10,000 engineers. Our centre could dynamically tap into these opportunities.”

Included in the plans are a range of business support services which would see the facility become a hub for entrepreneurship, collaboration, green skills and innovation between occupiers in the building and across the wider Gateway14 site and surrounding Freeport area.

Careers and recruitment advice would be available on site, and a new local labour market data observatory would be created to record and identify areas of skills demand and supply.

Mid Suffolk’s Cabinet approved the full business case at the end of last year. At the latest full council meeting, on Thursday 25 January, councillors agreed to use £10.75m of council reserves up-front for the project, but these would be replenished from business rates once the centre is operational.

Cllr Andy Mellen, Mid Suffolk District Council leader, said:

“This is a fantastic opportunity and one which is potentially transformative for the business and skills landscapes in and around Stowmarket.

We know that this project is ambitious and investing £18.75m in a building is a 'deep breath moment', but one we should go for.”

Speaking on behalf of all the project’s education partners, Phil Stittle, executive director of business development at West Suffolk College said:

“We are delighted to be part of this significant investment in the region, helping to ensure local skills and talent matches the needs of growing and evolving demand from employers and we look forward to working with Mid Suffolk District Council as the project evolves."

The 35,000 sq ft building will be built to meet a minimum BREAAM standard of ‘excellent’ which will ensure it is highly sustainable. BREEAM excellent rated buildings on average reduce carbon emissions by 33%.

Development of the centre would support the development of a wider innovation cluster at Gateway 14, offering a unique skills and innovation resource to high value occupiers seeking to relocate at the site.

In November, the first unit on the site was handed over to The Range, which is setting up a new logistics and distribution centre creating 1,650 jobs.

Outline planning permission is already held for the whole Gateway 14 site. Gateway 14 Ltd, wholly owned by Mid Suffolk District Council, would need to submit a reserved matters application for the new Skills and Innovation Centre. 

The full business case will be presented to the Freeport East Board in March 2024 for final approval. 

Aerial shot of Gateway 14 site with Cllr Winch and Cllr Mellen